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The Norquist Anti-Tax Pledge is Cracking — And That’s a Good Thing

Grover Norquist’s anti-tax dogma is slowly losing its grip on Republicans in both chambers of Congress. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has a handy rundown [1] on the growing crop GOP defectors, but for brevity’s sake, they are Sens. Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker, and Saxby Chambliss, as well as Rep. Peter King. This is on top of Speaker John Boehner’s pithy characterization [2] of Norquist as “some random person” (if only!).

Count me as unapologetically happy about this development.

It’s not that I’m thrilled by the promise of higher taxes.

Rather, I think the party, and the conservative movement at large, is long overdue in recognizing that the Norquist pledge has proved a spectacular failure on its own terms. The pledge was more than simply a safeguard against tax increases; it was a means to an end. Norquist memorably described that end thusly [3]: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

And how’d that work out?

This chart, created by Josh Barro, shows the trendline:


Josh Barro / Forbes.com

The pledge arrived on the scene [5] in 1986. And we do see, in Barro’s chart, a dip in federal spending as a share of GDP, beginning around the time of the Clinton administration. Barro explains that, during that period, we “caught lightning in a bottle … and can’t plan on doing so again”:

Of this 4.7 percentage points of GDP decline in government spending, nearly all (3.9 points) is attributable to the federal budget. About half of that (1.8 points) is the “peace dividend”: reductions in federal defense spending after the Cold War. A quarter (0.9 points) is reduction in net interest expense, as interest rates fell and so did the size of the public debt relative to GDP. Other key contributors were declines in non-defense discretionary spending (0.4 points) and in Social Security (0.5 points), the latter likely attributable to favorable demographics, as the Baby Boomers were in a peak earning period while a relatively smaller generation was retired.

In other words, the Norquist pledge had little if anything to do with the healthy fiscal position of the 1990s. And when it really mattered — during the Bush era, with its simultaneous wars and spike in spending — it was a limp slice of Swiss cheese. Congress lowered tax rates, while spending went up, up, up. Rather than inducing lawmakers to hold the line on the size of government, it served as an excuse to charge the binge to the federal Mastercard.

In retrospect, the Norquist anti-tax pledge was an emblem of blind-spot budgeting: it focused on revenue inputs and … what — hoped for the best on outputs?

The Republicans who have thus far publicly broken with Norquist have done so in the name of holistic budgeting — getting spending more in line with revenue. They realize that a deal with Democrats on revenue will create room for compromise on entitlements. Yielding on taxes, in other words, will accomplish the goal of actually shrinking government as a share of the economy.

If Norquist loses, logic wins.

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#1 Comment By Jim On November 26, 2012 @ 11:19 am

They realize that a deal with Democrats on revenue will create room for compromise on entitlements. Yielding on taxes, in other words, will accomplish the goal of actually shrinking government as a share of the economy.



George H.W. Bush

#2 Comment By Jack On November 26, 2012 @ 11:46 am

“Rather than inducing lawmakers to hold the line on the size of government, it served as an excuse to charge the binge to the federal Mastercard.”


I’ve paid off a few credit cards in my life, and the key is not just to cut up the card and make the minimum payments. No, you’ve got to cut up the card and pay as much as you can for as long as you can until that debt is gone.

I’m not quite ready to count Grover out, but it is good that a few of his disciples have figured out that the numbers just don’t add up. More revenue must be on the table, and that revenue can be traded for cuts.

Grover wanted to drown government. What we really need to do is teach it how to swim.

#3 Comment By notunclesam On November 26, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

These Republican Senators are willing to break the pledge if they can get entitlement reform. The Democrats will never agree to entitlement reform, so these Senators are irrelevant.

The Republicans that really matter are in the House. The President has to negotiate with them, and they don’t seem to be budging. Rep. Peter King of New York is not representative of the Republican Conference.

Republicans will fulfill the pledge or they will lose primaries. Better than vote to raise tax rates on anyone, Republicans should do nothing and allow rates to go back up to Clinton levels for everyone.

#4 Comment By Bradford On November 26, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

If you spend only what you earn, there are two possibilities:
1) Earn a little, spend a little
2) Earn a lot, spend a lot

Norquist wants government to earn a little. Since we don’t avoid debt (i.e. we spend more than we earn) we are earning a little and spending a lot. The solution is either to earn more (raise taxes) or spend less. Norquist’s solution would work (as would a large, welfare state) if only we were willing to keep our spending within our means. Conservatives, it seems to me, value both fiscal responsibility and small government, so Norquist’s pledge should be supplemented with a “spend only what you earn” pledge for government, rather than abandoned in favor of an irresponsible state (like our current one) or a welfare state (a leftist solution).

#5 Comment By Richard Wagner On November 26, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

I just hope the Republicans hold the line on entitlement reform. I loathe the GOP, but there our only hope on making SS and Medicare sustainable over the long haul. I’m only 31, and I want these programs to be around, and be sustainable when I retire. If it means waiting until I’m 70, so be it!

#6 Comment By kierkegaard71 On November 26, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

I find your hope of entitlement reform in exchange for additional revenue to be very naive, based on my observation of politics in the last 30 years. I changed from considering myself a conservative to considering myself a libertarian years ago when I realized that the current type of democracy that is practiced in the US (and in the West), when combined with the welfare state, will never be able to limit government to reasonable limits.

#7 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On November 26, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

The whole business about drowing the federal government in a bathtub, if taken to its logical conclusion, would say that we should dissolve the union and have 50 independent states. Has anyone ever challenged Norquist on that?

#8 Comment By Clint On November 26, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

George Bush ’41 found out what happens to Republicans,who break their “No New Taxes” Pledge.

“Norquist, in fact, says the fact that no House Republican has voted for a tax increase in 22 years is directly a product of his pledge. “

#9 Comment By Ryan Ellis On November 26, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

And increasing the tax revenue going to the government for it to spend will decrease spending…how?

#10 Comment By SDS On November 26, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

“They realize that a deal with Democrats on revenue will create room for compromise on entitlements. ”

In light of the history of these types of “compromises”; can this be taken seriously? – I have yet to see any offer of a compromise on entitlements; do you? AND how much will taxes have to go up (on everybody) to make a dent in the deficit?

Without SOME serious offer of specified cuts, I’d rather the sequestration go through; at least that will force SOME cut in spending.

IN the end; we did it to ourselves…

#11 Comment By steve in ohio On November 26, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

I think Grover’s getting thrown under the bus for advocating defense cuts. I don’t trust Washington “compromises”. Taxes will go up without any cuts to defense or entitlement spending. The fiscal cliff is looking better all the time.

#12 Comment By Anthony Reed On November 27, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

The problem isn’t a pledge not to raise taxes.

The problem is that this pledge didn’t ALSO carry a pledge not to increase spending!

#13 Pingback By Rand Paul’s Sympathy for the (Rich) Devil | The American Conservative On November 29, 2012 @ 10:19 am

[…] fiscal-cliff negotiations, as, frankly, not much has happened in the last two weeks, other than a slow trickle of Republicans seeking daylight between themselves and Grover Norquist. For the most part, Congressional Democrats […]

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