Jonathan Chait

The Flaw In Grover Norquist's Evil Plan

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Matthew Yglesias points out that Grover Norquist is the most powerful ally of liberal democrats who oppose spending cuts:

I’m not sure if Norquist understands this or not, but in the current moment of institutional weakness for American liberalism, he’s the most powerful advocate we have. At the end of the day, the long-term level of taxation is determined by the level of money that’s spent. Every dollar the federal government spends will be repaid, with interest, out of taxes. And currently in Washington we have lots and lots of Democratsfrom Barack Obama to Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennetarguing for reductions in scheduled spending. And the main thing standing in their way is Grover Norquist, his tax pledge, and his insistence that no Republican vote for any spending cutting bill that also includes some increases in revenue. So far, that’s denying cuts-oriented Democrats the working legislative majority they need to implement their agenda, and giving congress’ small number of hard-core progressives the ability to veto cuts in Social Security.

It's clearly true. The size of government is defined by the size of spending, not taxes. Any money that's spent will eventually be matched by taxing, whereas tax revenue does not create its own spending. A deal that increases taxes and cuts spending is a deal to reduce the size of government. It's amazing that so many conservatives, led by Norquist, oppose a deal like that.

Now, there is a way in which Norquist's twisted philosophy can work. If Republicans use their periods of majority control to implement debt-financed tax cuts, they can increase the structural budget deficit. Then, when Democrats take power, they can force Democrats to devote their resources to reducing the deficit rather than other priorities. It worked during the Clinton administration, and it's working to some extent during the Obama administration. (Obama used health care reform largely as an exercise in reducing health care cost inflation, which made it far more politically painful than the Bush-style let's just cut a check method favored by Paul Ryan and other Republicans.)

There are, however, two flaws in the Norquist plan. The first is that it depends upon Democrats playing the sucker forever, using their presidencies to clean up the GOP's mess, then watch Republicans make a mess all over again, and be willing to use their power to play janitor this way in perpetuity.

The second flaw is that the crucial clean-up role, in which the size of government really does get reduced through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, will inevitably run into the opposition of... Grover Norquist. Norquist's plan depends on him losing a high-stakes fight as crucial moments. That seems like a hard plan to sustain. (This also suggests that Norquist's plan is not a plan at all but rather a form of ideological megalomania.)

There's also the fact that Norquist's plan runs the risk of undermining the entire fiscal basis of the federal government and precipitating a collapse, but I'm not counting that because I'm not sure Norquist considers it a flaw.

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