Grover Norquist, committed tax opponent, sees new dynamic in politics
Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform and one of the most influential conservative activists in the country. There has been a series of reports recently that he's fighting to keep Republicans from striking a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction - even if the tax increases are only a small part of the package. We spoke week about whether deficits are as important as spending cuts, whether the budget can be balanced without tax increases and whether there will be a deal. The answers, in order, were no, wrong question and no. A lightly edited excerpt:
Ezra Klein: Let me make sure I have your position right: We can and should balance the budget without increasing any taxes from the current levels, and perhaps while cutting them further.
Grover Norquist: Yes and no. We should reduce total government spending as a percentage of the economy. The left wants to focus on the deficit so they can take us away from the focus on spending as a percentage of the economy.
As long as we're focused on spending, there are only two ways to do that. One is spend less, and Democrats have no solutions for that. Or we have pro-growth policies that make the economy grow so the dead-weight cost of government becomes a smaller percentage of the economy and therefore less expensive.
EK: It's fair enough to focus on cutting spending rather than reducing the deficit, but you seem to focus on something else entirely: lowering tax rates. The pledge you have candidates sign is that they won't raise taxes, not that they won't increase spending. So if spending is the issue, why not have a spending pledge?
GN: If I could come up with an enforceable measure, I'd do it. We've stopped tax increases for 15 years with this pledge. It worked from Clinton in 1993 to 16 days into Obama's tenure in office, when he raised taxes on tobacco and broke his promise not to raise taxes on anyone making under $250,000 a year.
I would argue that the tax pledge is the spending pledge. If you take taxes off the table, there's only one thing to talk about: spending restraint. The other piece to this puzzle is a structural one: the tea party movement. Prior to that movement, there wasn't an organized political opponent who said, "Don't spend too much or we'll throw something heavy at you." Before them, Republicans could say, "I'll leave your faith alone and your taxes alone and your guns alone and let you home-school your kids," and that was enough. We now have a group that moves its vote on spending.
EK: When you take tax increases off the table, it's easier for politicians to spend because the spending is suddenly free. The Bush administration, for instance, passed huge tax cuts and then passed a huge expansion of Medicare, a ton of infrastructure investment, wars - they just didn't pay for it. They put it on the credit card. When you push these guys to cut taxes, it doesn't seem to me that you put spending cuts on the table. It seems like you put debt on the table.
GN: And the modern Republican Party/tea party movement is reacting to just what you've described. The Republicans took over the House and Senate in 1994. In 1997, the appropriators took over and pushed out [Newt] Gingrich [as speaker of the House]. The appropriators became the second most powerful political party in the country. Now we're tamping down on the Appropriations Committee - we're taking away their ability to bribe and threaten others with earmarks. That changed the dynamic of power. Now they're having trouble getting people to serve on the Appropriations Committee. At Americans for Tax Reform, we'd go even further: We've been arguing they should be limited to six-year terms. There's been a change in the culture in the modern Republican Party. They're reasserting spending discipline.
EK: When it comes to the new Gang of Six - the negotiations between Sens. Tom Coburn and Saxby Chambliss and Mike Crapo for the Republicans, and Mark Warner and Dick Durbin and Kent Conrad for the Democrats - let's say they really get the fiscal commission's package on the table. About 70 percent spending cuts, 30 percent tax increases. Balanced budget fairly soon. Do you fight that deal because any tax increase is too much of a tax increase? Or is balancing the budget and making these other reforms, if they're on the table, worth accepting?
GN: The goal is to reduce the size and scope of government spending, not to focus on the deficit. The deficit is the symptom of the disease. And there are several reasons to oppose tax increases.
First, every dollar of tax increase is a dollar you didn't get in spending restraint.
Two, you walk into the Democrats' Andrews-Air-Force-Base, Lucy-with-the-football trick for the third time in a row.
In '82 and '90, the Republicans were smart, tough, focused guys. They were taken to the cleaners. The Republicans negotiating with the Democrats are negotiating with Dick Durbin. Durbin. Durbin! Does Durbin have an interest in cutting any government program in the history of the world at any time in his life? No. Never. He's there to sucker Republicans into putting their fingerprints on a tax increase so when you go into an election, people say, "Can't trust them. They'll raise taxes."
The reason it won't happen is that the Republicans have taken the pledge and made a promise to their constituents that they won't increases taxes.
No, there won't be a tax increase. That's not happening. It's an odd way to spend your time. I think golf and cocaine would more constructive ways to spend one's free time than negotiating with Democrats on spending restraint.