You may think the most important progress on the fiscal front of late is the support that the bipartisan “Gang of Six” is attracting from other senators for their work to develop a deficit reduction plan, or the letter that 64 senators sent to President Obama urging him to “support a broad approach to solving the problem” of soaring deficits.
Actually, the most important progress came from an act of political courage that Bruce Bartlett described today in The Fiscal Times: a Republican senator picked a public fight with the anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Norquist challenges Republicans – Presidents, Members of Congress, and candidates for offices of all kinds – to sign “the pledge”: that they will not vote for higher taxes on individuals or businesses under any circumstances. Hoping to please conservative activists who provide much of the money and ground troops for GOP campaigns, all-too-many Republicans succumb to the pressure, hoping to win office and maintain their conservative bona fides once they start serving. Virtually every Republican in the House and Senate has signed the pledge.
As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, Norquist recently “sent up a flare” against any Republican who might be tempted to support tax increases as part of a comprehensive deficit-cutting package of the kind that earlier presidents and Congresses enacted, most notably in 1990 and 1993.
But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. – who served on President Obama’s fiscal commission, who supported the plan of co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson that proposed higher taxes, and who, by the way, has signed the pledge – blasted Norquist and his efforts to rein in wayward Republicans.
“These fights… help raise money for interest groups,” Coburn told the Journal, “but they don’t do anything for solving problems.”
Bartlett shredded the logic behind Norquist’s militant anti-tax stance. But the issue is larger than that. No tax pledges of any kind are frankly idiotic. They presume that low taxes are the “be all, end all” of public policy, and more important than finding the resources to fight a war, respond to a natural disaster, or address some other emergency.
The same holds true on the progressive side, where some leaders this year are seeking pledges by Democratic lawmakers that they will not cut Social Security, alone or as part of a deficit reduction package.
Policymakers of the left and right obviously have strong predispositions on public policy. Conservatives don’t want to raise taxes and would rely more on the private sector than government to address social problems. Progressives want to protect the safety net, and many of them would expand it further by enacting government-run, single-payer health care.
But no officeholders should make Sherman-esque commitments to eschew certain policies under any circumstances. Nor should they succumb to the pressure of self-anointed spokespeople for taxpayers, senior citizens, or others – circumstances be damned.
It’s time that someone who holds office and faces such pressure was willing to stand against it. Thank you, Senator Coburn.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.
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