Soon after George W. Bush won his first presidential election, Washington lobbyist, Grover Norquist, helped craft the tax cut legislation that would go down in history as “the Bush-era tax cuts.” Among other things, the legislation dropped top marginal tax rates from 39.6 percent to 35 percent and was written to expire on Dec. 31, 2010.
In 2010, Democrats tried to put forward two separate packages of legislation that would extend the cuts, first for earnings up to $250,000, then for earnings up to $1 million. The Democratic-led House passed both bills, but Republican filibuster blocked both in the Senate. President Barack Obama resolved the stalemate by extending all the Bush tax cuts for two more years.
Here’s the irony: Republicans claim to hate deficits, but the facts are clear. If extended indefinitely, the Bush-era tax cuts will account for nearly half of America’s budget deficit by the year 2019.
During a live-streamed interview on CSPAN Nov. 28, Norquist spoke to Politico’s Mike Allen about the prospect of letting the cuts expire. Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, damned Republicans who dared to break the ATF pledge not to “increase taxes” into the ranks of the politically and spiritually fallen. He said that to consider such a thing was to have “impure thoughts.”
So, here’s the rub: Grover’s gofers are caught between a rock (the devastating effect of extending the Bush-era tax cuts that he crafted) and a hard place (the appearance of breaking the oath).
Which of these hard places is hardest? That’s the question … or at least it should be.
Extending the Bush-era tax cuts, especially for top earners, would multiply the deficit over time. The non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explained in an updated version of a 2011 report on the deficit: Under current policies the deficit would be 6.1 percent of GDP by 2012. Without the extension of the Bush tax cuts, it would be 3.6 percent. Extending the cuts runs counter to Republican rhetoric.
Plus, indefinite extension of the cuts would cause deficit hawks to look elsewhere for the needed cash. Exhibit A: Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal boasts $4 trillion in cuts, but makes two-thirds of its cuts by hacking programs that serve poor and working families.
Budgets are moral documents and how we balance America’s budget is also a moral issue. Jesus is clear: what we do to the least (read “most vulnerable”) among us will echo for eternity. It matters.
The Hard Place
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37, emphasis mine)
The Apostle James reprises Jesus’s admonition: “Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (James 5:12)
Maybe, just maybe, our current tax-pledge puzzle is just the kind of situation Jesus and James had in mind.
In the current Congress, 238 representatives and 41 senators have signed Norquist’s pledge. ABC News reports, “In the next Congress, ATR claims 219 representatives and 39 senators as adherents.” In the CSPAN interview, Norquist said the oath is binding “as long as you’re a congressman.”
To swear such an oath is hubris. The oath-taker must believe that for as long as they are in office, they will not only have control over their own ability to cast a particular vote. They must also believe that the world’s economic conditions will stay favorable to that kind of action for the foreseeable future. Legislators who swore their allegiance to Norquist’s pledge in 1986, 1998, 2001, and even 2006 could not have foreseen what was around the corner in 2008; the greatest recession in U.S. history since the Great Depression.
The supreme irony is that Norquist crafted the cuts so that they would not be permanent. One might think that the impermanent nature of the actual legislation would give Grover’s signatories an out.
Think about it: The Democrats have already compromised. Last year they cut $1.5 trillion in discretionary funding, including international programs and an array of domestic programs that help poor and working people. Yesterday, they offered another $400 billion in Medicare cuts. Plus, they proposed an extension of the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of all taxpayers. Grover’s gofers have an out. Republicans could let the tax cuts expire for the top 2 percent while extending the tax cuts for the other 98 percent. Or they could gracefully fold their hands and let the whole shebang expire — then come back in 2013 and actively cut taxes for 98 percent of all taxpayers.
Some prominent Republicans are beginning to repent of their hubris: Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) all renounced Grover’s pledge this week.
The hard place of Norquist’s pledge is hard, but the igneous rock of the devastating effect of continued tax cuts for the rich is harder. His oath should not have been taken in the first place. It was political and spiritual hubris and Republicans are finding their way to repentance.
In the wake of Republican revival, perhaps now we have a chance to see the end of the Bush-era tax cuts, the end of Norquist’s stronghold on our politics, and the beginnings of effective reform — the kind that can truly serve the common good.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat