Grover Norquist claims that if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hadn’t pledged not to increase taxes, he would never have been able to push through the collective-bargaining reforms that helped close the state’s budget shortfall.
“You don’t get a conversation [about reform] once you put tax increases on the table,” Norquist told Ramesh Ponnuru in an interview for Bloomberg View.
The pledge is particularly effective at the state level, Norquist said, because of constitutional backstops that generally prevent long-term deficits. It gives pledge-takers the ability to “tell interests that seek higher spending, in Norquist’s words, ‘I’d like to help you, but my hands are tied.’ ”
It seems to me the opposite is true at the federal level. There, politicians simply increase spending without paying for it.
Norquist, of course, sees it differently.
Ponnuru thus summarizes Norquist’s view that old-line Republican deficit hawks like Bob Dole are “naive”:
Jeb Bush, [Lindsey] Graham and other Republicans who favor a deal that cuts spending and raises taxes are naive, in Norquist’s view. President Ronald Reagan, he notes, came to regret a similar deal he made in the 1982 budget because the spending cuts didn’t materialize. The 1990 deal, Norquist further argues, didn’t keep spending from coming in a little higher than the Congressional Budget Office had projected from 1991 to 1995.
Is it really true that deals like the one Bush 41 cut in 1990 failed to reduce spending? Economist Bruce Bartlett notes in the Fiscal Times that “the final deal cut spending by $324 billion over five years and raised revenues by $159 billion.” Bartlett explained to me via email that the disconnect is over real versus nominal spending, and that Norquist doesn’t accept the premises of baseline budgeting. (Ezra Klein catalogues other examples of budget compromises here.)
Accounting disputes aside, can Norquist plausibly claim that his tax pledge has helped politicians hold the line on federal spending? If the goal is to reduce the size of government, then the Norquist pledge has proved an utter failure. It only has succeeded at making big government seem deceptively cheaper.