America is well served by lawmakers who budget carefully and who closely scrutinize calls for tax increases. But America is ill served by lawmakers who refuse to consider tax increases regardless of the circumstances.
The latter have held sway in Congress in recent years. Candidates and incumbents alike, especially Republicans, have lined up to sign pledges not to raise taxes. The pledges were the brainchild of Grover Norquist and his organization, Americans for Tax Reform, and they have been wielded like weapons both in Republican primary elections and general elections. Some candidates truly believe in the pledges; others fear being smeared as profligate spenders, never mind the realities.
The pledges, which Mr. Norquist considers eternal and all-encompassing —prohibiting even the closing of loopholes and elimination of tax deductions that aren’t offset by cuts in federal spending — have contributed more to the federal debt than conservatives like to believe. For instance, they’re part of the reason our nation has fought two wars on credit, borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those pledges also have been part of the reason lawmakers have failed to find common ground in budget negotiations, and chart a course toward balanced budgets and accelerate an economic recovery.
Fortunately, some pledge signers are coming to the realization that refusing outright to raise taxes can do more harm than good. A handful of incumbent Republican House members, putting their oath of office ahead of their pledge to Mr. Norquist, have disavowed their pledges. Also, about a dozen new House Republicans have refused to sign them. Now, instead of the 239 House Republicans who honored the pledges last session, only 212 — less than a House majority — of the new Congress are signers. Unfortunately, that number includes Manhattan’s present and former congressional representatives, Tim Huelskamp and Lynn Jenkins.
Importantly, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a well respected conservative from Georgia and one of 39 Republican senators to have signed the pledge, disavowed his pledge last week. “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it (Mr. Norquist’s) way, then we’ll continue in debt…” Sen. Chambliss also said that when he runs for re-election in two years, he expects opposition from Mr. Norquist, but added, “Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down.”
The conversions to common sense by Sen. Chambliss and others won’t in and of themselves solve our budget crisis. Nor do they preclude opposition to tax increases. But they open the door that had been slammed shut — a door to possibilities that haven’t existed for years.
Cuts in spending will indeed be necessary, but so will tax increases in a balanced approach. What those who have signed the pledges now must decide is whether they’ll continue to answer to Mr. Norquist, whose often-repeated goal is to “cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can grow it in the bathtub,” or to the masses of fellow citizens who want Congress to put the good of the country first.