Norquist Pledge is political malpractice
Paul F. deLespinasse
It is now obvious that President Joe Biden’s efforts to secure bipartisan support for a substantial infrastructure program will fail. This was probably inevitable. Nearly all Republicans in Congress have signed the “Norquist Pledge” never to raise any taxes, and even a much smaller program would require that some taxes be increased.
Republican members of Congress have consistently denounced every tax increase proposed by the Biden Administration. They have given different reasons for opposing every particular measure. Although they never mention the Norquist Pledge, their actions demonstrate a firm intent to abide by it.
Although it is commendable to keep their word, these politicians should never have given that word in the first place. The Pledge is financially irresponsible political malpractice. It makes it harder to reduce taxes when circumstances permit. No rational legislator would support tax decreases if he or she knew that it would be impossible to raise them again if the reductions turned out to be too big, or if changed circumstances made increases advisable.
And yet a Republican Congress enacted a huge tax decrease in 2017.
Governing is an experimental science, and it is impossible to predict all of the consequences of changing the level of taxes. Congress needs to be able to make corrections — up or down — in tax rates when changes turn out differently than expected.
By making our political system more rigid, the Norquist Pledge makes it more likely to break when stressed. Most people would rather pay higher taxes than to crash the economic system, which would impoverish everybody.
The Norquist Pledge also precludes taking advantage of good opportunities. Barack Obama never took the pledge, but perhaps his biggest mistake in 2008 was to promise never to raise taxes on the middle class, a mistake recently repeated by President Biden.
Obama was unable to support a single-payer medical insurance system, which would require raising taxes on everybody (since there aren’t enough rich people to pay for it just by “soaking” them). The result was Obamacare, an administrative mess that leaves millions of Americans uninsured. When its effects are all added up, Obamacare costs average Americans — directly and indirectly — more than Medicare-for-all would have cost them.
We should never vote for candidates who make iron-clad promises like the Norquist Pledge. But neither the general electorate nor Republican politicians are entirely responsible for the corner Republicans have painted themselves into.
Any Republican politician who refused to take the pledge would be attacked by Grover Norquist’s organization in the next primary elections. They would scare up a rival candidate who would be happy to take the pledge. And since it is the extremists (in both political parties) who show up most heavily in primary elections, the rival would be likely to win. The basic problem here lies in the use of primary elections in their current form to determine who each party’s candidates will be, but fixing this problem will be very difficult.
Government services can be critical, especially during emergencies like wars, pandemics and recessions, but ultimately these services must be paid for. To allow an organization like Norquist’s so-called Americans for Tax Reform to tie government response up in knots is crazy.
Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, has described Norquist’s position as no “taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell.”
Norquist himself has said that “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
As a Republican until 2008, I hate to say this. But with Republican politicians captive to someone seeking to drown government in the bathtub, thoughtful voters will need to vote for Democrats even when they would otherwise prefer to support more conservative policies.
Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.