Debating the Tax Pledge

by Betsy Woodruff

In a debate with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Tuesday, Grover Norquist defended his controversial anti-taxation pledge, a commitment that many in the media blame for the failure of the supercommittee. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, created by Norquist’s group Americans for Tax Reform, lets lawmakers publicly commit to fighting all tax increases. Some hold that this promise crippled the Republican members of the supercommittee by keeping them from compromising with Democrats.

Norquist kicked off the debate, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, by arguing that the pledge enabled Republicans to win the House in 2010.

“The pledge has helped people communicate accurately to the American people where they are on taxes and has changed the nature of the Republican party and the success of the modern Republican party,” he said.

Douthat responded by saying that while the pledge proves politically effective and has prevented some tax increases, it hasn’t reined in spending.

“Whenever Republicans have had a working majority, tax rates may go down, but spending has consistently gone up,” he said. “Sometimes these increases are resisted by pledge-takers, but overall, the choices of Republican politicians, pledge-taking Republican politicians whose actions are fully consonant with the standard of quote taxpayer protection set by ATR, has steadily increased the long-term liabilities of the American people.”

In short, the pledge doesn’t actually protect taxpayers.

“We are no closer to the much-cited quote of a government small enough to drown in a bathtub,” he said.

Norquist countered Douthat’s argument by saying that without the pledge, there wouldn’t even be a conversation about spending restraint. As long as raising taxes remains an option, then taxes and spending will both grow. He cited the examples of California, where pledge-taking Republican state legislators have kept the state’s economy from becoming even worse, and Pennsylvania, where the governor (a pledge taker) oversaw a $3 billion spending decrease by refusing to raise taxes. He also mentioned Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas as other examples of the pledge’s success in cutting spending.  

He also argued that the Republican party will run the House for the next decade because of its anti-tax stance.

“On that, I recommend Barney Frank as Exhibit A,” he said. “Barney Frank would not walk away from power, Barney Frank was walking away from ten years in the minority.”

Douthat rebutted by pointing to fiscal consolidations in Europe and Canada that have simultaneously cut spending and raised taxes, averaging 85 percent spending cuts to 15 percent tax increases.

“The goal of conservative public policy is not merely designing pledges that stand the best chance of helping Republicans win the next election,” he said. “It is actually achieving the best interests of the American taxpayer in periods when Democrats are in power as well as Republicans.”

But compromise is a pipe dream, according to Norquist. “The two parties are going in opposite directions, and if somebody wants to go east and somebody wants to go west, what’s a compromise? There’s no compromise,” he said.

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