November 30, 2012 5:25 pm

Norquist’s pledge on tax is unworthy

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge symbolises a political system short on legitimacy

Fiscal cliff” is a good metaphor for the approaching clash over US budget priorities, if you think of the cliff as the one James Dean and Corey Allen race their cars towards in the climactic “chicken” scene of Rebel Without a Cause. Tax cuts passed under George W. Bush that affect every US taxpayer are programmed to expire at the turn of the year. That will probably make it easier to close the federal budget deficit but harder to keep the economy thrumming.

Republicans want to retain the current low rates for everyone. President Barack Obama wants to raise taxes on family incomes of more than $250,000 a year. Republicans, like Allen in the movie, are becoming aware that a strap of their jacket has somehow got hooked into the door handle, and if they can’t somehow get it loose they’re going to wind up in a fiery ... well, I don’t want to ruin the movie for anybody.

What is binding Republicans is the so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge, dreamt up decades ago by the lobbyist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Candidates who sign do not just bind themselves to vote No on new income taxes. They also promise not to remove any of the market-distorting exemptions and deductions that pepper the US tax code unless they are matched, dollar-for-dollar, by tax cuts. That is an important stipulation because the US tax code is designed to be obscure. Many subsidies, for everything from mortgage interest to the conversion of corn into ethanol, are paid through tax breaks.

Obviously, the pledge is a ratchet driving taxes down to unsustainable levels. But since George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992 after breaking a promise not to raise taxes, practically every Republican with ambitions to go to Washington has felt compelled to sign the pledge. That has made Mr Norquist one of the most powerful men in the capital.

In the wake of Republicans’ across-the-board losses in last month’s elections, several prominent senators and congressmen have declared themselves no longer bound by the pledges they signed. That may shrink Mr Norquist’s influence. It is premature, though, to think it ushers in a new era of fiscal responsibility.

Mr Norquist is not out to grind the faces of the poor, or to carry water for the plutocracy. His views are more interesting. Whether one likes his politics or not, he is one of only a handful of Washington movers and shakers who could be described as a bohemian. When I met him in the 1990s, he lived in a part of Capitol Hill that middle-class people were scared to walk in. He would hold parties, with loud conversation and Chinese food, late into the night.

The “conservatism” Mr Norquist espouses today is the same Ayn Rand-type libertarianism that teenagers favoured back in the 1970s, when he was at Harvard. His attention may be attracted by different issues, but he retains a young person’s Manichaean ebullience about politics. In an interview broadcast in 2010 he described Washington state’s Initiative 1098, which would have raised income taxes on high earners, as a plan “to go and steal money from other people”. He backs gay rights groups, calls for more immigration, thinks the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were both mistakes and has tried over the past decade to make the Republican party more friendly to Muslims. He fought to have National Airport renamed after Ronald Reagan. His problem is that he has overestimated the power of taxes to hold together this multifaceted agenda.

Mr Norquist is not more distant from budgetary reality, though, than the president is. No prospects for fiscal balance will open up until that changes. Mr Obama’s 2009 stimulus turned out not to be a one-time stimulus at all; it has instead become an annual trillion-dollar pourboire to the federal bureaucracy. He has deflected blame from the role of the “stimulus” spending in driving up the national debt, by pointing (with justification) to the Bush tax cuts. But Mr Obama himself now proposes to keep at least four-fifths of them and probably more. He shows no sign of being more flexible about welfare than Mr Norquist is about taxes.

The pledge, a partisan document, symbolises a political system short on legitimacy. Candidates feel they must sign it because they are more likely to be defeated in an intraparty primary than in a general election. That, in turn, is a function of widespread gerrymandering. Representatives ought to be beholden to their constituents and consciences, not to lobbies.

Mr Norquist claims that the pledge is something politicians make to their constituents, not to him. But one wonders who authorised him to collect politicians’ signatures on those constituents’ behalf. The end of the pledge, if indeed that is what we are witnessing, means progress. It’s just not budgetary progress.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.