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The Politician, the Pledge, and the Pilfered Government

by Tony Sterle on July 22, 2011

One of my favorite movies is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  The film tells the story of a regular Joe named Jefferson Smith, who is propelled to the Congress by the governor of some unnamed Western state.  Smith is both wholesome and naïve-two traits that Jim Taylor, a corrupt political boss, plans to use to control his senate votes.  See Mr. Taylor has this plan: he wants to pass a Public Works bill that builds a useless dam while padding his pockets and the pockets of his supporters.  Taylor controls a bunch of the politicians in the Congress, who respond to his every whim and desire, so he thinks he’s got this dam locked up.  However, once Smith learns of Taylor’s embezzling scheme, he takes to the Senate floor and filibusters the graft bill, talking continuously until he passes out.  Of course, this is a movie, so in the end, Smith wins, the bill fails to pass, and the government becomes a little more pious and people-serving.  

Unfortunately, life is not a movie, and the current Mr. Smiths in Washington are losing to a new version of Mr. Taylor.  This fellow, like Taylor, holds massive sway over our politicians and goes by the name of Grover Glenn Norquist.  He is the president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and a fellow Harvard alum (needless to say I’m very proud).   Under Norquist, the ATR sponsors the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which at its core, compels the politicians who sign it to oppose any form of tax increase ever.  Like ever.  Like even in the case of war, flood, and famine ever.  I mean seriously, here’s the language of the pledge:

I, _____________, pledge to the taxpayers of the ___ district of the state of__________, and to the American people that I will:  ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax  rates for individuals and/or businesses; and  TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and  credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

It clearly doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for flexibility.  Now, at this point 236 Representative and 41 Senators have signed the bill, nearly all of them Republicans.  Why do they do it?  They need to in order to get elected.  Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report puts it like this:

Politicians used to look to guidance from parties. Now they look to guidance — or threats — from interest groups…I think there’s a tendency for candidates to believe they have to appeal to the base, and there’s a kind of threshold of credibility that they need to achieve, and that leads them to signing these pledges…if you don’t sign the pledge, it can define you as a candidate, and you might spend the rest of the campaign defending and trying to move away from that issue.

Our politicians-particularly the Republicans-are faced with a sort of join or die situation.  They can sign a pledge that will tie their legislating hands in Washington, or they can stay home and not make it to Washington at all.  Confronted with this kind of logic, I can see why they do it.  The choice even for Moderate politicians, I imagine, must go something like this: “I can sacrifice a small amount of my principles now and get elected or I can allow somebody even crazier and more extreme than I am to sign the pledge and beat me.”  Signing just makes sense.  But the fact that politicians are forced into Grover Norquist’s pledge means that our government doesn’t really belong to the politicians or the people anymore-it belongs to Grover Norquist…and that might have been his plan the whole time.  

Now, I know some Conservative folks read our blog, and so you guys might be thinking, well so what?  I don’t like taxes.  I’m with Norquist on this one.  But I would submit to you that most of the recent budget crises that have taken place in our government both on the state and national level are in large part due to Norquist and his pledge.  Want to fix the debt ceiling dilemma with a combination of large spending cuts and small tax increases on corporate jet owners?  Too bad, you can’t.  Grover Norquist says no.  Want to stop the Minnesota state government from shutting down by mixing spending cuts with miniscule tax increases on Minnesota millionaires?  Guess what?  You can’t.  It doesn’t matter that the last time we actually balanced the budget was under President Clinton who raised top marginal tax rates from 31% to 39.6%.  All that matters is that Grover Norquist, with his ideological aversion to any and all forms of taxes, gets his way.  

We need to stop this anti-tax nonsense immediately and keep our government from heading down a dangerous road.  I’ve repeatedly written about the consequences we will face if the debt ceiling is not raised (in case you haven’t been following the situation, Republicans are refusing to lift the ceiling if it means increasing taxes).  Look, economists are worried; Moody’s is worried (which is why it has threatened to downgrade U.S. treasury bonds from their AAA rating).  Even Republican politicians have shown signs of revolt against Norquist.  Heck, as I’ve been composing this article, stories have come out that suggest that Norquist thinks Norquist is being too ideological.  

This pledge and ones like it don’t have a place in politics.  Period.  We need our leaders to have flexibility in their governance.  We need the Mr. Smiths of Washington to step up and give this Mr. Taylor the boot.  It’s time for Norquist and his pledge to go-it’s time for compromise.  

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