Such reasoning was common in the GOP circa 1963, when Republicans denounced tax cuts proposed by President John F. Kennedy as a road to red ink and rampant inflation. But today’s GOP adheres to a “no new taxes” orthodoxy that has proved far more powerful than the desire to balance the budget. As House Speaker John A. Boehner has said: Raising taxes is “unacceptable and a non-starter.”
This orthodoxy is now woven so deeply into the party’s identity that all but 13 of 288 GOP lawmakers in Congress have signed a formal pledge not to raise taxes. The strategist who invented the pledge, Grover G. Norquist, compares it to a brand, like Coca-Cola, built on “quality control” so that Republican voters know they will get “the same thing every time.”
Loyalty to the brand is so strong that no Republican has voted for a major federal tax increase since 1991, Norquist says. It is so widespread that more than a dozen governors and hundreds of state legislators now count themselves as adherents. And it is so well defended that its followers are constantly patrolling at both the state and federal levels for new forms of trespass.
In California, the pledge is interpreted to prohibit state lawmakers from asking voters to decide whether certain existing taxes should be extended. In Pennsylvania, the pledge is cited as a barrier to imposing an “impact” fee on the environmentally questionable business of extracting gas from underground shale.
On Capitol Hill, Norquist has admonished Coburn (Okla.), Crapo (Idaho) and Chambliss (Ga.) for suggesting a tax option for tackling the debt: reducing credits and deductions worth an estimated $1 trillion a year. Although most of the cash would be used to lower tax rates for everyone, a portion would be dedicated to restoring national solvency.
No good, says Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform. Under the pledge, raising revenue in any way requires an equal tax cut elsewhere to avoid expanding the size of government. And, yes, that sometimes means protecting tax breaks that Republicans view as bad public policy, Norquist and his supporters say.
The GOP’s three-decade-old campaign against taxes has clearly had a significant impact. Neither major party would advocate a return to the 1970s, when people earning more than $200,000 a year faced a top rate of 70 percent. But the top rate is now half that and, partly because of the recent recession, tax collections have fallen to their lowest level as a share of the economy in 60 years.
Major tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 also contributed to the decline in revenue — and helped drive up budget deficits. Today, the spiraling debt ranks well ahead of too-high taxes on the list of economic concerns. And the GOP’s hard line on the issue stands, alongside Democratic resistance to cutting federal retirement benefits, as the biggest obstacle to a bipartisan agreement to tackle that problem.