Over at CNN.com, The Daily Beast's John Avalon is asking provocatively, "Who's afraid of Grover Norquist."
The answer—contrary to what many left-liberal types are currently spouting as they whistle past the graveyard—is a whole lot of people. To them, Norquist's famous "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" is standing between them and the tax increases they so earnestly, covetously desire. And they are afraid because they understand the power of the tax issue, electorally and politically.
For close to 30 years, Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform has asked candidates for Congress to pledge to the voters of their state or congressional district that they will oppose all efforts to increase marginal income tax rates and that they will oppose efforts to eliminate tax deductions or tax credits unless matched, dollar for dollar, by marginal rate reductions. It's a project I oversaw in a previous life; indeed Norquist has been my friend, on and off, for almost the entire time I have been in Washington.
The pledge, Norquist likes to remind people, is not made to him but to the voters—to whom anyone who votes for a tax increase is ultimately responsible. It is they who have the final say on whether a pledge-breaking tax hiker like Kentucky Rep. Ben Chandler is returned to office or sent to the unemployment line.
The language, which is simple enough, is intended to preserve the spirit of the hugely successful and bipartisan 1986 tax reform act, which cut marginal rates while closing unnecessary, economically distorting tax loopholes.
The spending interests don't like the pledge because it makes it harder for them to find new revenues to fund their programs. A vote for higher taxes is almost certain death for a politician. A vote to close a loophole to raise funds is easy to cast, easy to explain, and easy to hide—but it also amounts to a marginal rate increase because, at the end of the day, taxpayers are hit with higher marginal rates than they were before.
They, who include people who should know better, want the matter of the fiscal cliff to turn on taxes or, if you prefer, the lack of sufficient revenue currently flowing into federal coffers. They want you to forget it is they who caused the problem in the first place and that they, give or take a few retired or defeated members of the House and Senate, could not come to agreement on a way to solve it. They want people to believe that, after a massive and reckless period of spending led by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, their hands are tied and there is nothing else to do but raise taxes.
This is, in a word, "Balderdash!" No one has yet come forward with a serious plan to cut spending since the Paul Ryan budget. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn deserves credit for trying but he too is looking at closing loopholes and eliminating deductions and credits as "revenue enhancements" rather than focusing on the policies needed to get the American economy growing again.
Too many people are unwilling to acknowledge that the United States cannot tax its way out of the financial mess Obama and his spending have caused. There is just not enough money, even if the federal government levied a one time only wealth tax of 100 percent on those who pay taxes on the personal rather than corporate side of the ledger. But spending cuts are an anathema to the special interests because they have a direct impact on political constituencies that tend to vote for the Democrats. Is the picture becoming clearer?
Congress has an annoying habit of spending more than it takes in, even when taxes are raised to pay for deficit reduction. Historical analysis by Ohio University Professor Richard Vedder finds that for every $1 Congress raises taxes, it increases spending by $1.17, which makes the deficit and the debt even worse.
The continued health of the U.S. economy and the possibility of economic recovery lies not in the drive to raise taxes but in the strong stand taken by House Speaker John Boehner and others against raising them. The problem is not the lack of tax revenue. It's that President Obama and the spending interests seem to believe that they can't be out of money because, as those of college age sometimes seem to think, they still have checks left. The attacks on Norquist and the pledge are a diversion from the real issue, intended to set conservatives fighting amongst one another rather than coming up with a real plan to bring spending under control.