Coalition in the Star-Ledger

It’s over for Grover, take my pledge instead

By Paul Mulshine/The Star Ledger on December 04, 2012 at 8:16 AM

I have a friend who’s never been good with money. He runs up his credit cards and then goes bankrupt. He’s done that twice. He’s planning to do it again.

My friend is not a disciple of Grover Norquist. But he might as well be. Norquist’s ideas have led the Beltway Republicans to behave the same way.

What Norquist accomplished with that no-tax-hike pledge of his was the equivalent of telling my friend that he could keep running up debt but was precluded from seeking new sources of revenue. Working overtime? Forbidden. Seeking a raise? Banned. But the buying binge could continue.

The big difference is what happens on Jan. 1. Thanks to the liberal bankruptcy laws enacted by Congress, my friend can once again wash away his debt. But the Congress can’t permit itself to go bankrupt. So on Jan. 1, it will be going off the edge of that so-called “fiscal cliff.”

If that happens, income tax rates will rise dramatically. This is the exact opposite of what Norquist intended to accomplish with the pledge he authored in 1985. The first section reads, “I pledge I will oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses.”

When the Bush-era tax cuts expire, marginal rates will go up. There’s not a damn thing the Republicans can do about it — except try to work out a slightly better deal. That would force them to break that pledge. Dozens have said they will do so.

But it was the pledge itself that got us into this mess. If Norquist had included spending constraints in it, then the Bush-era Republicans could not have cut taxes without adopting the balanced budget amendment.

When Norquist was in Newark last year, I asked him why the pledge didn’t cover deficit spending. He replied, “I was focused then on a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes, which I think is more important than a balanced budget amendment.”

No, it’s not. If you permit politicians to approve new spending with a mere majority but require a two-thirds majority to approve new revenues, then you are inviting them to do what my friend loves to do: Spend money they don’t have.

So let me hereby offer my new, improved pledge. My pledge keeps the first part of the Norquist pledge. I then add part of the pledge pushed by a group formed recently to deal with the debt, the Coalition to Reduce Spending: “I pledge I will not vote to increase borrowing or the debt ceiling.”

My pledge does more than just address the problem of deficit spending. It also addresses the problem that Mitt Romney so inelegantly brought up in his failed campaign for the presidency: About 47 percent of Americans pay little or no income tax.

The reason those people don’t pay much income tax is that the income tax is by its very nature progressive. If you don’t make much, you don’t pay much. And you therefore have no reason to vote for people who will cut spending.

That’s why conservatives don’t like progressive taxation. For the same reason, liberals like progressive taxation. And that’s the reason we have two parties.

But the same Republicans who oppose progressive taxes also tend to oppose flat taxes. Here they misread Norquist. When Democrats recently proposed a carbon tax, he grasped the opportunity they were offering. He said he would let the Democrats have their carbon tax as long as the revenue was used to avoid raising income tax rates.

A lot of his fellow Republicans are attacking him on this. They argue that a carbon tax would hit the middle and lower classes. But if the Democrats want to increase taxes on the same people who voted Barack Obama into office, why would a Republican object?

Any Republican who took my pledge couldn’t. He’d be forced to raise taxes. And if he stuck to flat taxes, he’d be giving a lot of voters a reason to start voting for the party that promises to cut spending.

So there’s my pledge. Let me humbly suggest that my plan kills two birds with one stone. Norquist’s pledge lets the bird of spending fly the coop of constraint.

Now if only I could come up with a similar pledge for my friend.