Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has spawned an imitator.
Almost every GOP lawmaker signed a promise to oppose tax hikes at Norquist’s behest. This seemingly ironclad agreement set a major hurdle for ongoing talks with President Obama to reduce the deficit and avert the looming fiscal cliff. The White House has proposed raising tax rates on the top 2 percent of earners, a move that congressional Republicans—bound by the pledge—are fighting as they push for reforms to eliminate deductions and reduce rates further.
What Norquist did for taxes, Jonathan Bydlak wants to repeat with a promise to restrict government spending.
“Whatever you think about Grover, his model has been extremely effective,” the 29-year old Princeton grad told The Fiscal Times. “A big part of the spending problem is there is generally a lack of accountability. …The advantage of the pledge is that when someone says, ‘I’m fiscally conservative or concerned about the national debt,’ we’re going to define very specifically what that means.”
Backed by the investor Peter Schiff, Bydlak launched the Coalition to Reduce Spending and drafted a three-point pledge for candidates to sign. The pledge commits lawmakers to: 1.) Vote against any budget that isn’t balanced or any bill that increases net spending; 2.) Be willing to cut expenditures for all government programs, and 3.) Reject any increase in the government’s borrowing capacity. Only congressional authorizations for military force are exempt from the pledge.
But with GOP lawmakers already grumbling about the Norquist pledge—and being disciplined for their complaints—a relative outsider like Bydlak may find some congressmen are reluctant to take more vows. Just one other staffer works full-time with Bydlak, who worked at a hedge fund before entering politics as the fundraising director for Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s 2008 quest to win the Republican presidential nomination.
The two legislators who agreed to the pledge thus far will assume their seats next year, incoming Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. They were among 24 candidates who inked the pledge , with the coalition focused on getting signatures during the primary. “Now that November’s past, we’re shifting our focus to outreach to elected officials,” Bydlak said. “Norquist built Americans for Tax Reform so that it became an increased part of the process of running for office. That’s the same way we approach the reject the debt pledge.”
Pledges can foster loyalty, but also self-sabotaging rigidity. The down-to-the-wire negotiations last year to raise the debt ceiling (something Bydlak wants to block) almost landed the U.S. government in default. When lawmakers adhere without question to a pledge, they abandon the chance to exercise their own judgment.
For the Democrats engaged in the current fiscal cliff talks, it’s Norquist’s tax pledge that kills potential compromises. And in this particular instance rather than shielding Americans from higher taxes, a breakdown in negotiations would cause the expiration of lower rates for all taxpayers and throw the country back into recession.
“Unfortunately, there’s one obstacle standing between Congress and compromise: Grover Norquist,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the chamber’s floor last week. “For years, Norquist has bullied lawmakers willing to put their oath of office or their promise to serve constituents ahead of their pledge to the anti-tax zealot.”
It’s also worth noting that the pledge asks lawmakers to vote for a balanced budget, but doesn’t specify when the government would need to reach a surplus. House Republicans last year passed a plan by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan that put the government in the black almost 30 years from now.
The mechanism of the pledge impresses Bydlak, but he recognizes that there were negative side effects from simply blocking higher taxes—the government turned more toward borrowing, rather than bringing down spending.
Federal outlays totaled about $1 trillion after Norquist founded his group in 1986, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Spending this year topped $3.7 trillion, almost double what it should have been if the federal budget tracked inflation. The annual debts during that time are just shy of $9 trillion, as deficits replaced tax hikes.
“You’ve had this unintended consequence where you allowed high spending to occur,” Bydlak said. “If there is still a feeding tube being stuffed down the beast’s throat, you’re not really starving the beast. That feeding tube is borrowing and the issue of new bonds.”