Grover Norquist, by his own count, has 236 U.S. House members and 41 senators on a leash. He and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, have persuaded that many people in Congress – 52 percent – to sign a pledge never to vote for a tax increase. Whenever talk comes up of using taxes to help put our economic house in order, Norquist jerks the leash, and 277 House and Senate members start howling. What nonsense!
I fully recognize that America’s balance sheet and income and expense statement are messy. Furthermore, I agree that we have to cut back on government spending to be fiscally responsible. (If you want to see how I’d approach the problem, click here to get a pdf showing the spending cuts and revenue increases I’d pursue. If you want to try your hand, go here to play the Stabilize the Debt game.)
But here’s the thing: If you were running a business, you’d never commit to a strategy of never raising prices. You might avoid price increases as much as possible. You might use productivity increases and cost-cutting as your primary strategies to stay competitive and profitable. But you’d never say, categorically, that you would never raise prices. It would be unwise to rob yourself of what might someday be a necessary tool.
I understand the federal government isn’t in the business of making a profit. I understand it can do a better job of managing its resources. I understand it should not take more resources than necessary to do the job it is asked to do. But to ask the federal government not to ever raise taxes again is to strip it of a tool it might need in crises and emergencies or to deliver the goods and services that we . . . we the people . . . demand.
We are, after all, the beneficiaries of many government programs, such as the $730 billion spent each year on Social Security, the $490 billion spent on Medicare and the $300 billion spent on Medicaid. Are you willing to see cuts in those programs so there can be no new taxes? How about the $895 billion spent on defense? Are you willing to see cuts in that budget? (I am.)
To his credit, Norquist is lengthening the leash just a bit. He indicated last Friday that he would not consider letting the Bush tax cuts expire to be a vote for new taxes. If the cuts are renewed, we’ll kiss away $3.4 trillion that could be collected between now and 2018. That money would go a long way toward helping us back on the path of fiscal responsibility.
So, what do you think? Is it wise for an elected official to promise never to raise taxes, thereby abandoning a strategic tool he or she might need someday? If you ask me, I think it’s a bad approach to government.