Spending pledges vs. spending limits

Grover Norquist in 2011. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

As Congress begins to drive America off the fiscal cliff, the politics of taxes and spending will reach new levels of absurdity. Over 20 years ago a young upstart in Washington, D.C., Grover Norquist, began an anti-tax campaign calling on every senator and congressman to sign a pledge that they would never vote to raise taxes. Nearly every Republican and many Democratic legislators have signed this pledge but with the fiscal cliff imminent, many members of Congress are starting to second-guess their decision.

Here’s what this sort of politics sounds like. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss from Georgia says, “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge.” To which Grover Norquist responds, “Senator Chambliss promised the people of Georgia he would go to Washington and reform government rather than raise taxes to pay for bigger government. If he plans to vote for higher taxes to pay for Obama-sized government he should address the people of Georgia and let them know he plans to break his promise to them.”

Folks, the politics of the fiscal cliff is going to get ugly. But there are some simple realities about taxes and spending. First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with raising taxes – just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with lowering taxes. A free society needs government. The questions we face about government regard its size and scope. What are essential needs and what programs are nonessential?

Last legislative session here in Utah, Sutherland Institute staff once testified in favor of a state constitutional amendment to limit spending. During our testimony, one House legislator pushed back and asked us to define nonessential spending. Of course, I’d like to think that his question was genuine. Unfortunately, that sort of question is used in the moment to put supporters of limited government on the spot so the opposing legislator can sound like a virtuous defender of helping people. After all, if the Legislature approved a government program, it must be essential, right?

But we know the reality is much different. There is something called a “spending bias” in every legislature and it controls the thinking of nearly every legislator I’ve ever met at every level of government. The spending bias is easy to see and understand: There’s an ever-present, ever-increasing pressure to create new government programs and spend more on existing ones. There’s little to no natural pressure on legislators to cut programs and spending. No special interest group lobbies a legislature to cut spending, unless that group is the ox being gored.

Legislators need help being their better selves when it comes to taxes and spending. What Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform have relied upon is an anti-tax pledge – a political document used to threaten the very re-election of a senator or congressman. What Sutherland Institute has proposed for Utah is a healthier process, set in our state constitution, requiring the Utah Legislature to have a vigorous debate if it chooses to raise taxes beyond reasonable limits. The Sutherland approach takes the politics out of tax reform and makes the spending bias all but disappear.

In addition to that debate, the Utah Legislature is also quietly talking about restoring the food tax it removed several years ago. This is another example of the spending bias. In a day and age of economic downturn, why is any state legislator looking to raise taxes? What possible reason is there to raise sales taxes on our food? There isn’t any. And yet the pressure on legislators to raise taxes is unceasing. The appetite for more and more government is insatiable and no legislator, even conservative Republican legislators in Utah, is immune from the pressures to increase spending requiring them to also hunt for additional tax revenue.

It’s time to take the politics out of tax reform. It’s time to pass Sutherland’s idea of a constitutional spending limitation. Taxes might not be evil, but they do seem to be eternal. It’s time to help Utah’s Legislature resist the never-ending pressure of special interests for more government.