Where are the fiscal conservatives? If you think the answer is the right side of the aisle, think again. Since the mid-1980s, when former Crimson editor Grover G. Norquist ’78 joined forces with President Ronald W. Reagan to push a fanatical anti-tax oath on Republican members of Congress (now signed by 95 percent of Republican congresspeople), the Grand Old Party has been more concerned with depressing revenue than reducing deficits. A true fiscal conservative is one who promotes small deficits, funded spending, and a sober approach to our nation’s finances. By this standard, today’s Republican Party couldn’t be less conservative.
For evidence of the Republican Party’s profligacy, look no farther than the Bush tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and 2003. Costing over $1.5 trillion, the cuts were motivated by a desire to give the Clinton surplus back to the taxpayers rather than to use it to pay down the national debt. Bush and his colleagues in Congress took a rare opportunity to put a dent in our nation’s indebtedness and turned it into an unfunded stimulus package. This is not quite the behavior of a party of debt hawks.
A less discussed but even more severe display of fiscal recklessness came in the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. One might think it a fundamental tenet of fiscal conservatism to pay one’s debt. Yet in today’s Republican Party, this obligation plays second fiddle to ideological zealotry. House Speaker John A. Boehner played a game of chicken with our nation’s credit, threatening to forgo debt service unless the president and Senate give in to their ideological demands. This is the behavior of radicals, not conservatives.
It is in light of this recent Republican trend of fiscal profligacy that we are heartened to see a few sober voices begin to speak out in favor of a levelheaded approach to reducing the deficit. Senators Lindsey O. Graham, and Saxby Chambliss as well as Representative Peter T. King have all expressed a willingness to raise revenue as part of a deficit reduction deal. While it may seem silly to take hope in just a handful of legislators expressing what should be obvious—that raising revenue is a necessary part of the deficit reduction toolkit—our nation’s recent political history makes their gestures noteworthy.
Regardless of whether Norquist’s anti-tax oath is behind the anti-tax orthodoxy plaguing the Republican Party or merely a symptom of it, we are pleased to see it abate. After all, the only oath to which our governing officials should be beholden is the one they swear during their inauguration. What Norquist considers “impure thoughts”—legislators publically considering breaking with his oath—are in fact what allows our democracy to function. When compromise plays second fiddle to ideological purity, fiscal responsibility is sidelined in favor of public displays of ideological devotion.
If the Republican Party is to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, then it must remember that paying one’s obligations must come before impressing interest groups. Norquist is happy to see his marginal tax rate lowered. Whether the United States is a reliable debtor is a concern for the rest of us.