The Republican Party once had a home for the thinking of Tom Coburn, Mike Crapo and Saxby Chambliss. But that party is long gone.
The three U.S. senators banded together a few months ago in support of higher tax revenue as a means of balancing the federal budget. Even with drastic spending cuts, they concluded, Washington could not vanquish its soaring $14.3 trillion debt without additional income.
Such reasoning was common in the GOP circa 1963, when Republicans denounced tax cuts proposed by President John F. Kennedy as a road to red ink and rampant inflation. But today’s GOP adheres to a “no new taxes” orthodoxy that has proved far more powerful than the desire to balance the budget. As House Speaker John A. Boehner has said: Raising taxes is “unacceptable and a non-starter.”
This orthodoxy is now woven so deeply into the party’s identity that all but 13 of 288 GOP lawmakers in Congress have signed a formal pledge not to raise taxes. The strategist who invented the pledge, Grover G. Norquist, compares it to a brand, like Coca-Cola, built on “quality control” so that Republican voters know they will get “the same thing every time.”
Loyalty to the brand is so strong that no Republican has voted for a major federal tax increase since 1991, Norquist says. It is so widespread that more than a dozen governors and hundreds of state legislators now count themselves as adherents. And it is so well defended that its followers are constantly patrolling at both the state and federal levels for new forms of trespass.
In California, the pledge is interpreted to prohibit state lawmakers from asking voters to decide whether certain existing taxes should be extended. In Pennsylvania, the pledge is cited as a barrier to imposing an “impact” fee on the environmentally questionable business of extracting gas from underground shale.
On Capitol Hill, Norquist has admonished Coburn (Okla.), Crapo (Idaho) and Chambliss (Ga.) for suggesting a tax option for tackling the debt: reducing credits and deductions worth an estimated $1 trillion a year. Although most of the cash would be used to lower tax rates for everyone, a portion would be dedicated to restoring national solvency.
No good, says Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform. Under the pledge, raising revenue in any way requires an equal tax cut elsewhere to avoid expanding the size of government. And, yes, that sometimes means protecting tax breaks that Republicans view as bad public policy, Norquist and his supporters say.
The GOP’s three-decade-old campaign against taxes has clearly had a significant impact. Neither major party would advocate a return to the 1970s, when people earning more than $200,000 a year faced a top rate of 70 percent. But the top rate is now half that and, partly because of the recent recession, tax collections have fallen to their lowest level as a share of the economy in 60 years.
Major tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 also contributed to the decline in revenue — and helped drive up budget deficits. Today, the spiraling debt ranks well ahead of too-high taxes on the list of economic concerns. And the GOP’s hard line on the issue stands, alongside Democratic resistance to cutting federal retirement benefits, as the biggest obstacle to a bipartisan agreement to tackle that problem.
“Grover’s not realistic,” said former senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a self-described “Reagan robot” elected to Congress in 1980. Gregg retired last year after serving with Coburn and Crapo on the bipartisan fiscal commission that recommended stabilizing borrowing by trimming tax breaks and sharply cutting spending.
With the number of people on Medicare and Social Security set to double, Gregg said, “your government is inevitably going to grow. And you’re either going to have to finance that, or you’re going to end up running the country into the ditch.”
In recent weeks, prominent Republicans have urged a more flexible approach to taxes. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan joined the chorus Friday, dropping his support for the 2001 George W. Bush tax cuts. Greenspan told CNBC he’s so “scared” by the debt that he now favors a return to the higher rates of the Clinton administration.
Martin Feldstein, a Harvard economist who served as chief economic adviser in the Reagan White House, supports the commission’s approach to raising money by ending tax breaks.
“When the government gives a tax credit to homeowners who buy solar energy panels, it’s just like giving them a cash subsidy to buy those panels,” Feldstein wrote last week in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, suggesting that the value of deductions and credits be capped at 2 percent of adjusted income.
“Although government accounting rules treat the end of a tax credit or the limit of a tax deduction as a revenue increase, the economic effect is the same as a cut in spending,” Feldstein wrote. “Anyone who favors less government spending should also favor cutting tax expenditures.”
But Norquist argues that equating tax breaks with spending “is a threat to the modern Republican Party’s worldview,” which calls for a vastly smaller government and “dramatically reducing the tax drag on the economy.”
That worldview supports eliminating tax breaks, Norquist said, but only if all the proceeds are used to push tax rates “down as far as possible.” The work of reducing the national debt must be done entirely by shrinking government, he said. Any compromise that includes taxes would hinder that goal and taint the Republican brand.
Norquist compared Coburn, the most outspoken of the Senate trio, to a “malignant” cell in the body politic. “So,” Norquist said, “we use chemo and radiation to protect all the healthy cells around it, so it doesn’t grow and metastasize.”
The germ of the pledge came to Norquist, he said, when he was 14 and thinking about a teacher’s comment that no one knows who his or her congressman is. If Republicans were known as the party that never raised taxes, he recalls thinking, they would be spared spending “millions of dollars explaining to you who they are and what they stand for.” They could just “stand up and say, ‘I’m the Republican.’ And you go: ‘He won’t raise my taxes and he won’t steal my guns. Got it.’ ”
At the time, Richard M. Nixon had just been elected president, and Republicans had a reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility: Dwight Eisenhower maintained wartime tax rates throughout his eight-year presidency, dramatically reducing the national debt. Congressional Republicans objected to Kennedy’s tax cut, arguing that any reduction in revenue should be pared with spending cuts to avoid ballooning deficits. Nixon supported extending a surtax to pay for the Vietnam War. And his successor, Gerald R. Ford, opposed a permanent tax cut in 1974, fearing budget deficits, according to historian Bruce Bartlett, a “lapsed Republican” who has written extensively about GOP fiscal policy.
Three factors helped rewrite the party’s economic doctrine, Bartlett said: In the late 1970s, key Republicans concluded that lower tax rates would boost the flagging economy. The new theory of supply-side economics held that such a tax cut would spur so much growth that it would actually generate more revenue. And the Proposition 13 tax revolt hit California, demonstrating the power of tax cuts as a political issue.
Ronald Reagan capitalized on growing anti-tax sentiment in his campaign for president and quickly pushed a tax package that slashed rates, a move credited with energizing the long-sluggish economy. Reagan went back to Congress in 1986 with a sweeping overhaul of the tax code that pushed the top rate down to 28 percent. At Reagan’s request, Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform and the pledge was born.
In his race to succeed Reagan, George H.W. Bush famously embraced the pledge, saying “read my lips, no new taxes.” But as president, he raised tax rates as part of a balanced-budget deal with Democrats. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 “proved for all time, that even though tax increases may be justified economically, they are never justified politically if you’re a Republican,” Bartlett said.
“Since then it’s been Republican dogma that deficits don’t matter and the only thing that matters for the economy is cutting taxes,” he said. “And Grover Norquist has become the enforcer of this dogma.”
The rise of the anti-tax tea party movement in 2008 further hardened the party’s stance against taxes. How is the pledge enforced? Typically, Republican candidates sign the pledge to avoid attack in the primary. Once in office, violators might find that Norquist has contacted Republican voters in their state or district to inform them that their senator or representative is having “impure thoughts,” as he put it.
Norquist has “these amazing mailing lists. Just tens of millions of people,” said Gregg, who has been a target.
At the state level, a vast network of foot soldiers stands ready to discipline local politicians who fail to walk the no-tax line. One of the most high-profile battles is being waged in Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is trying to persuade GOP lawmakers to join Democrats in extending the largest tax increase in state history, which is set to expire this month.
Last month, Norquist spent several days in the state, urging Republicans to stand firm. His argument is likely to be pretty compelling: In 2009, after enacting deep spending cuts, six GOP lawmakers helped then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) raise sales, income and auto taxes to close a $42 billion budget gap.
All six paid a price. The Republican leaders in both the House and Senate were deposed. The other four either retired or lost bids for higher office.
Senate Republicans dumped Dave Cogdill as their leader in a midnight coup before the tax deal was even approved. “They were hearing from their constituents and Grover Norquist, saying, ‘You got to do everything you can to fight this thing,’ ” Cogdill said in an interview.
Cogdill later retired from the Senate. He now serves as county tax assessor in his hometown of Modesto. He said he wishes he had been able to keep the pledge, but he didn’t see any alternative to raising taxes, given the state’s alarming financial condition.
Although he agrees with Norquist that taxes are too high in California, he’s not sure he would sign the pledge again. Pledges, he said, make it hard to respond to changing circumstances.
Republicans “have lost the art of compromise,” Cogdill said. “If we don’t get everything we want, then we let the whole thing burn.”