Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Grover Norquist vs. the Pentagon

A budget hawk targets defense spending
Illustration by Michael Hogue

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, famously quipped that he didn’t want to do away with government, merely “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” He is best known as the architect of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a promise from lawmakers to their constituents to oppose any and all tax increases. Since its inception in 1986, the pledge has become a virtual litmus test for Republican office-seekers, and today all but a handful of GOP congressmen have signed it.

Though the GOP often professes a desire to reduce spending, the party has been notably reluctant to go after the largest item in the discretionary budget—the Pentagon. TAC’s Michael Ostrolenk recently spoke to Norquist about this curious exception.


TAC: Grover, you are famous for saying that the U.S. government does not have a revenue problem but a spending problem. Sequester aside, how would you recommend the next Congress and President address pork at the Pentagon?


GN: Conservatives should insist that defense spending be examined with the same seriousness that we demand in examining the books of those government agencies that spend taxpayer money in the name of welfare, the environment, or education. We laugh at liberals who declare that their favorite spending programs should be exempt because the spending is for a noble cause.

A Spanish socialist once declaimed: Spending too much money is not left wing—it is stupid. Ditto wasteful spending in zones conservatives tend to favor because they are actually mentioned in the Constitution.

Spending should be transparent. All spending by the Pentagon should be online. Every check. Exceptions should be made for legitimate national security issues. But military and civilian pay and retirement benefits are not state secrets. This has already been done in many state governments.

The private sector has moved most of their pensions from defined benefit to defined contribution. Utah just passed a law that beginning in July 2012 all new hires by state or local government will have a 401(k) defined contribution pension. There will be no new unfunded liabilities. The Pentagon should make the DC reform that the private sector did in the 1980s, civilian federal workers began making in the 1990s, and state and local governments are doing now. Why be last?


TAC: What actions do conservatives need to take in order to help educate some members of Congress on their mistaken notion that spending equals strength?


GN: One should look at the charts that compare tax dollars spent per pupil on education to SAT scores, or high school graduation rates. Spending is not caring. Spending is what politicians do instead of caring. Spending more does not guarantee success. Politicians like to measure spending because it is easier than measuring actual metrics of accomplishment.

Then one should ask why defense spending is exempt from the laws of politics.


TAC: What lessons do you think Americans need to learn from the last 10 years of war including Iraq and Afghanistan?


GN: Ask advocates of the decision to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan after the Baathist and Taliban regimes were overthrown what their goal was. What would define winning or succeeding? How much did it cost? In dollars and in lives. And how much will continuing the occupations cost? When will they end? Someone sure of the virtue of his decisions will welcome answering those basic questions. Those who cannot answer those questions now should have been forced to answer them before lives were spent towards an unarticulated purpose.

Reagan asked in 1980: are you better off than you were four years ago? Are American interests in the world more secure today than before the decision to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan?


TAC: You are a strong proponent of transparency, which included your support for an audit of the Federal Reserve. What are your thoughts on a full and complete audit of the Department of Defense?


GN: The Department of Defense should be audited, as should other departments of the federal government.



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