Should spending be the primary focus of conservatives?

Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), has received a substantial amount of attention in recent weeks thanks to a handful of Republicans who have indicated that they are willing to go back on their pledges not to raise taxes on their constituents.

For years, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which is sponsored by ATR, has been a valuable tool in primaries as candidates frequently use it to show their commitment to fiscally conservative principles. As noted previously, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge simply states that the candidate will “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses” and “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” This pledge is not made to Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform, or Republican leadership in Congress. It’s made to taxpayers inside that candidates district or state.

However, there are some that feel that there is too much of a focus on taxes and not enough on spending. Jonathan Bydlak, President of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, expressed this sentiment last week in a piece at National Review:

For years, Grover Norquist and Republicans have tried “starving the beast” of the federal government by capping taxes. While they’ve been highly successful at preventing tax increases, they have been less effective at addressing one problematic aspect of fiscal policy: the ability of the Federal Reserve and Treasury to borrow more and more to finance massive spending, as they have done under the Bush and Obama administrations. It’s simple: Borrowing today means a higher tax burden tomorrow when the debt comes due. True fiscal responsibility, then, requires us to curb spending in addition to limiting tax rates.

Imagine if instead of pledging not to raise taxes, all those politicians had pledged not to raise spending. It’s unlikely the United States would be facing massive tax increases as part of the so-called fiscal cliff. That’s why it’s important to do for spending what Norquist has done for taxes: create a means for voters to hold elected officials accountable when they break campaign promises of fiscal responsibility.
My claim is a simple one: Spending more than you take in is dangerous because that money ultimately has to come from somewhere. When a government operates on an unbalanced budget, the tax burden is passed not only on to future generations but also onto our own, diminishing our opportunities through indirect taxation, such as higher interest rates and inflation.

Both parties have failed in this regard. We’ve seen Medicare Part D under Bush, the Affordable Care Act under Obama, and bank and auto bailouts combined with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under both presidents.

It’s time for all of us to take our hands out of the cookie jar. Having the Pentagon spending billions running grocery stores doesn’t make the U.S. strong on defense. And keeping the retirement age indefinitely at 65, even as Americans are leading longer and healthier lives, doesn’t make us compassionate. Both mean that we’re fattening up at the expense of our grandkids’ standard of living.

Bydlak suggests that conservative candidates should also sign his organization’s “Reject the Debt” pledge in addition to the ATR’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, noting the important of both low taxes and spending.

I sought out comment from Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist was traveling and unreachable. However, ATR did send along an outline of recommendations made by Norquist to President Obama’s debt commission in June 2010.

In the outline, Norquist explained, “Just focusing on the deficit ignores whether a fiscal crisis is predominately on the tax side or the spending side. The proper metric is not deficits—it is spending.” “[One hundred] percent of the fiscal crisis we face is due to an over-spending problem in Washington,” explained Norquist.

In addition to his comments to Obama’s debt commission, Norquist has frequently said that defense spending, which has been a sacred cow to conservatives and Republicans alike, should be on the table.

As far as it goes, Bydlak is dead on here. Some may take this as a slight at Norquist, but it really isn’t. Norquist himself has said that deficit spending is essentially a tax hike on future generations. Unfortunately, the notion of cutting spending was completely lost on many conservatives during the Bush years. While many Republicans will defend the increased outlays under Bush, citing the “war on terror,” Veronique de Rugy noted in her analysis on spending under Bush that domestic spending alone went up by more than 20% in his first term.

Sadly, it’s mostly the same song and dance today in the debate on the “fiscal cliff.” Republicans are showing a lack of seriousness on the issue of spending. They want to cut non-defense discretionary spending, a relatively small portion of the budget; however, they don’t want to touch defense spending.

Pledges are fine and can certainly help raise awareness, but accountability is really what is needed from grassroots groups and organizations. There has to be no fear in taking politicians that don’t hold to their end of the bargain on both taxes and spending.

The views and opinions expressed by individual authors are not necessarily those of other authors, advertisers, developers or editors at United Liberty.