In recent weeks, prominent Republicans have urged a more flexible approach to taxes. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan joined the chorus Friday, dropping his support for the 2001 George W. Bush tax cuts. Greenspan told CNBC he’s so “scared” by the debt that he now favors a return to the higher rates of the Clinton administration.
Martin Feldstein, a Harvard economist who served as chief economic adviser in the Reagan White House, supports the commission’s approach to raising money by ending tax breaks.
“When the government gives a tax credit to homeowners who buy solar energy panels, it’s just like giving them a cash subsidy to buy those panels,” Feldstein wrote last week in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, suggesting that the value of deductions and credits be capped at 2 percent of adjusted income.
“Although government accounting rules treat the end of a tax credit or the limit of a tax deduction as a revenue increase, the economic effect is the same as a cut in spending,” Feldstein wrote. “Anyone who favors less government spending should also favor cutting tax expenditures.”
But Norquist argues that equating tax breaks with spending “is a threat to the modern Republican Party’s worldview,” which calls for a vastly smaller government and “dramatically reducing the tax drag on the economy.”
That worldview supports eliminating tax breaks, Norquist said, but only if all the proceeds are used to push tax rates “down as far as possible.” The work of reducing the national debt must be done entirely by shrinking government, he said. Any compromise that includes taxes would hinder that goal and taint the Republican brand.
Norquist compared Coburn, the most outspoken of the Senate trio, to a “malignant” cell in the body politic. “So,” Norquist said, “we use chemo and radiation to protect all the healthy cells around it, so it doesn’t grow and metastasize.”
The germ of the pledge came to Norquist, he said, when he was 14 and thinking about a teacher’s comment that no one knows who his or her congressman is. If Republicans were known as the party that never raised taxes, he recalls thinking, they would be spared spending “millions of dollars explaining to you who they are and what they stand for.” They could just “stand up and say, ‘I’m the Republican.’ And you go: ‘He won’t raise my taxes and he won’t steal my guns. Got it.’ ”
At the time, Richard M. Nixon had just been elected president, and Republicans had a reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility: Dwight Eisenhower maintained wartime tax rates throughout his eight-year presidency, dramatically reducing the national debt. Congressional Republicans objected to Kennedy’s tax cut, arguing that any reduction in revenue should be pared with spending cuts to avoid ballooning deficits. Nixon supported extending a surtax to pay for the Vietnam War. And his successor, Gerald R. Ford, opposed a permanent tax cut in 1974, fearing budget deficits, according to historian Bruce Bartlett, a “lapsed Republican” who has written extensively about GOP fiscal policy.