Don't Blame Grover Norquist for Congress's Dysfunction

No one likes taxes, but Congress must realize people want roads and libraries and Social Security, and these things cost money.

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In the ongoing (rightful) hand-wringing over Congress's inability to compromise on tax and budget policy (not to mention all sorts of other items), it's pretty easy to blame Grover T. Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist has managed, to his credit as a political operative, to frighten a number of congressmen into adhering to a pledge to never raise taxes. Yes, it's an absurd and irresponsible demand to make of anyone in public policy. The very nature of legislating is understanding that things change, and policy must be adapted to circumstances. But why make Norquist the bogeyman?

As Dana Milbank reports in a spot-on piece in the Washington Post, Norquist is a bit delusional at the moment, or in some clinical level of denial. Despite the GOP's losses in this month's elections (and they just gave up another, with Tea Party firebrand Rep. Allen West finally conceding his Florida seat to Democrat Patrick Murphy), Norquist, like some other conservatives in the party, is convinced it has nothing to do with GOP policies. He's not at all worried that lawmakers will break the "pledge" to never raise taxes. Given the small but hopeful signs of cooperation on the Hill (driven more by the looming disaster of the fiscal cliff than a genuine sense of community, unfortunately), it appears that there may very well be an increase in tax rates, at least on some people.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the fiscal cliff.]

So Norquist is probably more than a little too optimistic he will prevail. And the pledge is a destructive and irrational demand to make on members of Congress. The mistake is in blaming Norquist, who is merely following his own (rigid) principles. The people to be blamed are the gutless members of Congress who are afraid of Grover Norquist.

When Congress was debating the debt ceiling in 2011—a debate that on its own, even before it was resolved, caused fiscal damage by sending a signal of legislative dysfunction to the markets—I asked a freshman Republican why he was ready to vote against raising the debt ceiling, even though virtually every economist said it could cause an actual global recession or depression. And he said, "This is what my district wants me to do." There was no reflection, no second-guessing of "constituents" who don't understand what the debt ceiling is, are rightfully frustrated at the level of debt and deficit, and want to do something dramatic to stop it. People who serve in Congress should know better—that raising the debt ceiling does not mean the U.S. government has a license to buy more proverbial real estate. It means that the government was going to pay its mortgage instead of daring the bank to repossess the house. The role of a congressman is to represent his or her constituents, to be sure—but that doesn't mean taking a poll on every issue and voting accordingly. It means exercising some informed judgment. No one likes to pay taxes, but people also want roads and bridges and libraries and Social Security. The role of a member of Congress is to say, things cost money, and actions have consequences. If your two year old wants candy three times a day for meals, you don't give it to him because that's what he wants.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

So Grover Norquist wants no tax increases. That's his right, and he deserves points for being intellectually consistent. But that doesn't mean members of Congress have to follow his (or anyone else's) rigid rules. Being a lawmaker is a grown-up job. Members of Congress should act like it.

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