The tag team of fiscal responsibility is at it again. And one of their targets is the self-styled emperor of anti-taxation. If Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson had their way, Grover Norquist would be put into a Santa suit and stuffed down a chimney.
When sworn in, members of Congress pledge to defend the Constitution and the American people generally. The presumption (and it is just that) is that lawmakers will not have any outside allegiances that will get in the way of that.
But over the decades hundreds of Republican lawmakers have ceded their right to make an independent judgment based on need and rational thought about taxation to a portly little lobbyist. They have pledged to Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform, never to raise income taxes no matter what the circumstances. They have done so under threat of electoral annihilation.
Now it seems that Norquist’s hold on the purse strings of their political fortunes has begun to loosen — even if only slightly — in the face of the predicted fiscal disaster at the end of December. Several GOP members of Congress have indicated they would be willing to put the needs of the nation ahead of Norquist’s demands. It is clear some tax compromise must take place as a part of any solution.
Without compromise the country will tumble over the fiscal cliff into a deep chasm of indiscriminate spending decreases, across-the-board tax increases and obvious recession. Simpson and Bowles predict an inescapable disaster of enormous proportions. They say economic growth will slow by 3.5 percent, unemployment will top 9 percent with 2 million more Americans out of work, the market will crash and there will be a serious downgrading of the nation’s bond rating. That’s probably just for openers.
These aren’t new assessments from the Dynamic Duo, who as co-chairs of the national commission to lower the debt and lead us out of the financial wilderness have stumped the country for two years determined to make someone take them seriously.
Even most of their fellow commission members couldn’t agree on much of anything except that down the road apiece there could be massive economic collapse. The man who appointed them, Barack Obama, just seemed to ignore their rants. But Simpson, a former senator, and Bowles, a former White House chief of staff and university president, have not given up. After two years of frustration, suddenly there are listeners out there.
With the crisis upon us some lawmakers once steadfastly committed to Norquist may be willing to switch their allegiance to the people in a rare show of statesmanship. While certainly not a tidal shift, it is encouraging. As the humorist Kin Hubbard once said, “Now and then an honest man is sent ... to the legislature.”
But going against the emperor of anti-taxation is chancing defeat two years from now. Norquist considers opposing any new revenues through tax increases even for the very rich a sacred trust that perhaps the Almighty has anointed him to defend. Winning compromise also requires the president and Senate Democrats to put aside their longtime refusal to do anything to reform runaway entitlement costs. They oppose even obvious reforms like raising the Social Security eligibility age to 68 or 69 given that life expectancy is almost 80, not the 55 it was when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck used 65 to gauge who among the German people would receive a pension.
So what are the chances that both parties in Congress, with strong leadership from a White House that clearly has yet to provide it, will do anything far reaching to avoid the crash?
It’s going to be a tough situation, Simpson says, as long as any of it depends on overcoming Norquist. Perhaps it won’t be as tough as they think. Although the emperor has been making noises that could be regarded as confidence if one stretches it enough, it seems he might be, as my grandmother used to say, doing some whistling past the graveyard. As the always-colorful Simpson says, “anyone who doesn’t have rocks in his head” can see what Americans are facing and compromise is the only solution. Hold your breath and pray.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.