News Journal: Republicans’ extremism on taxes broke Congress

I’ve seen television pundits shaking their heads in exasperation when asked how Congress became so gridlocked. It’s all so in complicated, they agree.
No it’s not. I’m going to explain how gridlock happened in 800 words or less.
First you have to understand that, if you want to know what really drives the president and Congress, look to the budget fights, not issues like immigration, guns, or abortion. They get a lot of attention, but the truth is the budget — deficits, taxes, how to spend the money — is at the heart of what concerns everyone in government.
You get to see everyone’s priorities when a budget is being drawn up.
Remember “no new taxes, read my lips?” That was George H.W. Bush’s big campaign promise in 1988. A lot of people, particularly conservative Republicans, thought the promise was what elected him.
But he also wanted to reduce the federal deficit, and he discovered that taking taxes off the table in the 1990 budget debate was a nonstarter with Democrats. So he compromised. If the Democrats would agree to a program he called “PAYGO” to reduce spending, he would agree to a modest tax increase.
PAYGO required all increases in direct spending or revenue decreases to be offset by other spending decreases or revenue increases. It worked, but the deal probably cost President Bush the 1992 election.
Enter a man named Grover Norquist, who founded a group called Americans for Tax Reform back in 1985. He used Bush’s broken promise to put pressure on legislators and candidates for office around the country to sign what he called the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”
Those who signed pledged to oppose any effort to increase income taxes on individuals and businesses. The emphasis there was on any. Once you signed, you could not budge an inch in any debate about a budget.
A lot of Republican legislators signed the pledge, but there weren’t enough of them in office by 1993 to stop the passage of President Clinton’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It was excoriated in Congress by Republican leadership, especially Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, as the largest tax increase in history. It would, they warned, result in exploding interest rate hikes and unemployment, growing budget deficits, and a steep decline in economic growth.
In the next seven years, interest rates and unemployment rates stayed low, economic growth exploded, and something no one thought would ever happen actually happened. Still using PAYGO, the United States had a budget surplus of $1.9 billion in fiscal 1999 and $86.4 billion in fiscal 2000.
When this happened, many of us thought there had been a clear demonstration of the budget-balancing effectiveness of a bipartisan consideration of both taxes and expenditures. But Norquist had been busy throughout the Clinton presidency getting a majority of Republican members of Congress to sign his no tax pledge.
The newly elected President George W. Bush had their support when he ended PAYGO and implemented a program of generous tax cuts.
Look at it this way: There are two sides to an argument about a budget. How much do we spend and how much do we tax to support those expenditures?
Suddenly, one side of the argument says that there can be no discussion, no give-and-take, on the tax issue. Period. It’s as if, instead of each side starting on their own 10-yard line and negotiating to reach the 50-yard line together, one side moves to the 50-yard line at the very beginning and then says, ok, let’s negotiate the remaining 40 yards on your side.
That pretty much explains the gridlock that has dominated Washington since the early 2000s.
Perhaps the most significant date in the history of gridlock was August 11, 2011.
That’s when Fox News commentator Bret Baier asked the eight Presidential candidates in a Republican primary debate, “Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10-to-1, spending cuts to tax increases. Who on this stage would walk away from that deal?”
All eight candidates raised their hands. It was a final victory for Grover Norquist. Offered a debt-reduction bill that was 10 to 1 in their favor, not one Republican would take it.
You want to understand gridlock? Try negotiating with people like that. And once the decision had been made never to negotiate on the budget, it was only a matter of time before that posture became a part of other negotiations.
What a partisan column! It’s all the fault of Republicans!
Guilty, I suppose. I’ll be glad to admit that Democrats haven’t always been faultless, and there are a few other, far less significant, causes of gridlock.
But I’d like to hear someone try to explain how it would have happened without the Norquist pledge.
Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. Senator from Delaware.