Pledge or Principle?

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Much ado has been made in recent weeks about the impact of the no tax pledge spearheaded by Americans for Tax Reform. Those who view the pending expiration of Bush era tax rates, and the fiscal sequester resulting from congress’ inability to deal with the situation last year as a revenue problem, rather than as a spending problem have made the pledge and its purveyor, Grover Norquist, out to be the major stumbling block to a solution.

The narrative surrounding this near hysteria on the Left centers on portraying Norquist as some sort of a K Street puppeteer controlling U.S. Senators and congressmen from behind the scenes. These elected officials, having signed the pledge, now find their strings being pulled by a man bent on enforcing a far right political agenda. For the good of the country, so the theory goes, they need to break the pledge and enact higher taxes upon the populace.

This begs the question: to whom was the pledge made? Most, if not all, of the pledge signers did so in a public way to demonstrate to voters their belief that Washington spends too much with debt and entitlements out of control. Their pledge not to raise taxes was made not to Grover Norquist; it was made to their constituents. Norquist’s apostasy is expecting candidates, once elected, to actually keep their campaign promises.

Having pledged to voters that they would not raise taxes, hundreds of candidates were subsequently elected to office. They were put there for the precise reason that voters want them to curb spending. It is true that President Barack Obama won re-election while promising tax hikes. But, voters also re-elected a Republican majority, most of whom made holding the line on taxes a key component of their campaigns. They were sent to Washington to cut spending, not to raise taxes. The pledge simply reminds voters of that fact.

Once again the main political problem is that conservatives have allowed the spending interests to define the debate. We don’t face a "fiscal cliff," we face a spending cliff. It is crystal clear that without significant entitlement reform, especially in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, neither government spending nor the ballooning federal deficit can be brought under control. But just as Republicans refuse to raise taxes, Democrats refuse to reform entitlements. It is a product of mainstream media bias that the intransigence of the Left on entitlement reform results in no political penalty.

Like a junkie shooting up in police custody, the Democrats are so addicted to spending that in the midst of this crisis they have proposed $50 billion in higher spending. The latest so-called stimulus put on the table by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner graphically illustrated the unwillingness of the Obama Administration to veer from its tax-borrow-spend approach to governing. The proposal was so ridiculous Republican negotiators literally broke out in laughter.

The more absolute becomes the Democrat’s refusal to cut spending or to reform entitlements the louder the attacks are on the no tax pledge. But the pledge is simply a manifestation of long-held Republican principle, at least among those Republicans who still have principles. Historically the GOP has been an anti-tax party. Its candidates have been punished by the electorate when they have veered from that course. Examples of this being the breaking of his "read my lips" promise by former President George H.W. Bush and the ousting of a spendthrift Republican majority from congress in 2006. Conversely, Republicans have won while cutting or promising to cut taxes. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both did so, and the GOP swept back into control of congress in 2010 based largely on Tea Party-style fiscal conservatism.

Thus the pledge is not simply a way for Grover Norquist to control congress. Rather, it is a manifestation of the Republican Party’s long and deeply held conservative economic principles. It is a promise to voters that those principles will be transformed into public policy. Those who have signed the pledge – and even those who have not – will ultimately answer not to Norquist for their abandonment of principle, but rather to the voters who elected them.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)

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