“I _____ pledge to the taxpayers of the __________ district, of the state of __________, and to all the people of this state, that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
It’s the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and it’s been a rite of passage for Republicans for over 25 years. It’s also the hallmark of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist’s lobbying organization. It’s also the promise currently holding the Republican Party a political hostage on the Hill in the wake of the current federal budget crisis. Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) “sabbatical” from the Gang of Six after taking heat from Norquist over his willingness to consider tax increases does not signal a victory for Norquist’s ruthless anti-tax crusade. Rather, Coburn’s refusal to accept Norquist’s fiscal fanaticism indicates the path that the Republican Party will have to take if it wants to win the budget debate and be successful in 2012. A brief history of Americans for Tax Reform demonstrates why the GOP will have to accept the possibility of revenue increases in order to enjoy this success.
Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) was founded in 1986 at Ronald Reagan’s request to drum up conservative support for the Democrat-sponsored Tax Reform Act of 1986. As ATR executive director, however, Norquist took the organization in a far less bipartisan direction. He found that many conservatives feared that they would be betrayed by the bill’s proposal to cut special-interest tax breaks and credits while lowering marginal rates, anticipating that rates would be raised in the long run and leave conservatives with nothing. Norquist responded to this conservative trepidation by circulating The Pledge, initially prompting more than 100 members of Congress to promise never to vote to raise taxes. In the current 112nd Congress, 40 of 47 Senate Republicans and 233 of 240 House Republicans have taken The Pledge.
And any one of them who breaks it risks their political lives. By infamously breaking his own “No New Taxes” pledge in 1990 by proposing a budget deal which raised taxes to remedy a ballooning federal deficit, George H.W. Bush provoked the wrath of Norquist, who promised hell to pay for any Republicans voting with the president. Norquist also declared a withdrawal of support for Bush himself in his 1992 reelection campaign. The result? Bush, a Pledge-taker, lost pivotal conservative support associated with ATR, and with it, the election. Thus The Pledge was validated as a campaign promise that no GOP candidate could afford to renege and so became an ironic obstacle for Republicans to electoral success. Norquist kept rolling after his 1992 validation, heading the anti-tax backlash of the early 1990s and coauthoring Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, thus playing a crucial role in Gingrich becoming Speaker of the House. Sixteen years after Gingrich became House Speaker, he finally appeared as if he no longer owed his political positioning to Norquist when he went on Meet the Press last month and called Paul Ryan’s ATR-endorsed Medicare proposal “right-wing social engineering”. While Indiana governor Mitch Daniels dropped out of the race last month, he is still another big-name Republican who similarly ruffled Norquist’s feathers a few years back. Daniels was White House budget director during George W. Bush’s first term, faithfully arguing in favor of Bush’s tax cuts and thus gaining the support of ATR and other anti-tax groups. Upon becoming governor in 2005, however, Daniels faced a $600 million state budget deficit, and pragmatics trumped his anti-tax rhetoric accordingly. Eight days into his governorship, Daniels proposed a 29% tax increase on high-income Hoosiers to close the budget gap, which Norquist publicly condemned as a betrayal. Norquist subsequently endorsed Texas governor Rick Perry to Indiana state legislators who opposed Daniels’s tax proposal, hailing Perry’s leadership as a gubernatorial model “for alternative solutions”. But just a year later, Perry committed a betrayal of his own, backing a gross receipts tax that quickly became known as the largest tax increase in Texas history.
All three would-be current presidential hopefuls, however, have recently demonstrated that Norquist is a man worth making amends with. Gingrich’s public apology to Paul Ryan for his negative comments about Ryan’s budget stance just a day after his Meet the Press appearance means Newt is currently the GOP frontrunner in the gaffe department for not taking the conservative, anti-tax stance that had earned him Norquist’s support to run for president in the first place. Daniels and Perry had been a lot more cautious in testing the presidential waters, principally because they’ve all been on the same page as Norquist. Last month, before withdrawing from the GOP presidential horserace, Daniels sent D.C. point person Debbie Hohlt to one of Norquist’s “Wednesday meetings” to persuade conservatives that the Indiana governor was anti-tax enough for his support. An automatic tax refund which constituted part of the $28 billion state budget he had just signed into law probably went some way toward appeasing Norquist. So did Norquist’s March meeting and appearance before the media with Perry, who Norquist has recently predicted would win the nomination and presidency if he does run. Perry, Daniels, and Gingrich, three of the most prominent figures in the GOP today, have not been able to stay away from Norquist, and their pandering in spite of their own policies proves that any Republican candidate for any serious D.C. office needs Norquist’s blessing.
But America doesn’t. ATR’s potential to taint the Republican Party’s credibility beyond its own fiscal conservative base can be summed up with one word: Colorado. In 1992, Coloradans passed the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), a dream referendum for Norquist that added an amendment to the state constitution requiring any tax increase to be approved by the people’s vote and restricted state spending hikes to inflation. At first, the initiative was a success for Colorado, but by creating a permanent revenue shortage, it pitted expenses for education, infrastructure, and health care against each other, making new initiatives to enable appropriate expenditure increases virtually impossible. By 2005, the people of Colorado had had enough, voting to suspend TABOR for five years, but not before their state had fallen at or near the bottom of national rankings in the share of low-income children who lacked health insurance (a figure that doubled from 1992 until the initiative’s suspension) as well as in the amount of money spent by the state government on students relative to their personal incomes (forcing parents to pay out of pocket for textbooks and other teaching supplies). TABOR also led to a drop in funding for public health programs and failed to provide for necessary improvements in roads and infrastructure. As a result, Coloradan business leaders, seeing the future of a highly educated workforce vanish in a haze of anti-tax extremism, withdrew their financial GOP support and Democrats took control of the state legislature for the first time in 40 years. Colorado’s decline has been a cautionary tale for the rest of the country, as TABOR referendums were struck down in Maine, Oregon, and Nebraska in 2006 and in Washington and Maine again in 2009.
If anti-tax fanatics can be left holding the bag for a state’s damaged economy and fractured GOP, then fiscal realists can all share the political credit when they don’t allow Norquist’s ideological dream to become a nightmare for everyone else. Virginia got it right where Colorado got it wrong. As Virginia governor in 2004, Mark Warner proposed a $1.1 billion tax hike, the state’s largest in 38 years, to address state deficits. Businesses shocked Virginia Republicans by staunchly backing Warner, recognizing what had happened in Colorado. These Republicans ignored the threats of ATR and other national anti-tax groups, actually one-upping Warner’s proposed tax increase by adding to it by $700 million. And Today, Warner, now secured in his position as Virginia senator by his previous popularity as governor, is a member of the Gang of Five. The Gang’s aim for a bipartisan budget deal is, at the very least, a symbolic refutation of the unconditional opposition to revenue increases coming from ATR and Grover Norquist. “The real risk is, at what time are the decisions taken out of our hands and put in the hands of the international financial community,” Coburn said before walking out on The Gang. “ATR may think that isn’t going to happen. But I can tell you, if we don’t fix our problems, 90 percent of the world’s economists say it is.” Even though he is no longer a Gang member, Coburn has indeed been productive in standing up to Norquist with more than just soundbites. Last month, he co-sponsored an amendment (along with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of CA) that would end an ethanol tax break for corn growers with the premise that oil and gas subsidies are no longer affordable. Coburn’s involvement drew the ire of Norquist, who has protested that the ethanol tax break represents a tax increase for corn growers. It would seem that Norquist is alone on this point, though, with RedState.org, the Economist magazine, FreedomWorks, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and conservative commentator Chuck Colson all endorsing the amendment.
With the Gang’s apparent collapse, it is currently up to President Obama’s Washington debt commission, co-chaired by former Republican senator Alan Simpson, to decide on deficit-cutting measures. This commission should recognize the danger in heeding ATR, since Simpson told the rest of the panel in February, “If you are in thrall to Grover Norquist, this country hasn’t got a prayer”. In April, conservative blogger David Frum added his voice to the many others denouncing Norquist’s inflexible fiscal outlook with a blog post appropriately titled “How Norquist’s Pledge Blocks Real Deficit Cuts”.
But such condemnations are easy for all of the above opponents of Norquist to put forward. They’re not running for reelection. Norquist claimed to have spent $7.5 million in the 2010 election season talking about who has and hasn’t taken The Pledge as well as who has broken it through posters, press releases, and group mail and e-mail, so Pledge-ignorers know all too well what they’re up against. For their own sake, though, Republicans would be wise to look beyond Norquist’s short-term grumblings and grasp the bigger political picture. Now that the Gang has collapsed, it is highly likely that a deficit solution will have to be put off until 2012, ensuring that next year’s presidential election will focus largely on Ryan’s Medicare budget cuts, which have already proven to be GOP political poison in New York’s 26th District and for Gingrich. Budget resolution compromise is the ticket for any GOP 2012 presidential candidate and any responsible Republican, because what Grover Norquist and the anti-tax crowd want wholly on principle isn’t what America needs in the present. With Obama already having met the Republicans halfway late last year when he cut a deal with congressional Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, the onus is now on the GOP to compromise in the tax-and-spend debate. The Republican Party, then, must overcome the rhetoric of ATR in order to become The Party of Now. If it fails to do so, it will instead become The Party of No, or more accurately, The Party of Norquist.
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