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Behind the Lines: The Norquist Pledge
First Published Dec 03 2012 07:59 am • Last Updated Dec 03 2012 09:10 am

Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.

Bagley: Grover Norquist may be the most powerful non-elected political figure in Washington. He possesses signed pledges from pretty much every GOP officeholder committing them to never, never, never raise taxes. Ever. Even in times of war or national emergency. The idea is that the government, starved of income, will shrink to a size where Grover can drag it to the bathroom and drown it in the tub. It’s fashionable in some circles to rail against government, like in this revealing clip I found of Tea Partiers (see video below).

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Lambson: In George Bush’s infamous words, "Read my lips." Pledges don’t mean anything in Washington. In times of war and national emergency the signatories will simply cite the war or national emergency as having been unexpected when they signed the pledge. No problem. Except we are always at war and there are too many declared national emergencies.

Bagley: The Norquist Pledge has held its Republican signers in thrall for 26 years. Anyone foolish enough to get crosswise with Norquist was quickly whacked (he actually owns a collection of whackers, "things you hit people with"). Swearing fealty to the Constitution should inspire the same awe and dread that Republicans feel when their god-king Grover is displeased. Norquist has been tremendously successful in making opposition to taxes the defining attribute of the modern GOP. It didn’t used to be this way. Even Reagan raised taxes when circumstances dictated.

Lambson: You seem to think that circumstances always dictate raising taxes. For those of us who believe in limited government, it really doesn’t matter whether we finance bigger government with higher taxes now or with a deficit now and higher taxes later. Government grows larger, more interventionist abroad, and more intrusive at home. Refusing to give the government more funding may be the best strategy for slowing this growth. By the way, swearing fealty to the Constitution should inspire more awe on both sides of the aisle.

Bagley: The only congressional budget that significantly cut government spending and balanced the books at the end of this decade was a proposal from the Progressive Caucus. Funny how conservatives talk a good game of limited government but then leave us with expensive and Orwellian programs like Homeland Security. If you’ll remember, it was a Democrat who said "the era of big government is over," and at the end of his term left a budget surplus so large that Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan openly worried about the problems associated with paying off the national debt.

Lambson: Democrats have said a lot of things. So have Republicans. Government keeps growing. We need a serious discussion of the proper role of government, not piecemeal proposals promising benefits without spelling out the costs and how they are going to be paid.

Bagley: Republicans would rather lash themselves to pledges than have a Serious Discussion. Since Republicans have already said everything they’re ever going to need to say about taxes, what’s the point of discussing? They’re immune to facts, figures, reason and history. Just try finding a single Tea Partier who can correctly answer this question: Have your taxes gone up under Obama? (They’ve gone down. For almost everyone, taxes are at a 60 year low). Talking to a cedar post is more rewarding.

Lambson: Taxes have gone down under Obama only if you take a short-term view. The way the deficit is exploding, however, higher taxes can’t be far behind. The point I keep trying to make is that the debate shouldn’t be so much about current taxes as about expenditures. Cutting taxes without cutting spending is just lip service.

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