Finally, Grover Norquist was the featured guest on the PBS NewsHour’s segment on the fiscal cliff. After previous editions of the program featured softball interviews with Paul Krugman and Max Richtman -- two members of the far left who oppose entitlement reform -- as well as moderate conservative Republican Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the NewsHour saw it fit to give time to the anti-tax activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform.
Of course the December 12 interview proved to be an occasion for liberal anchor Judy Woodruff to push back hard against Norquist on taxes, firing every possible liberal talking point at him she could. Norquist was adamant that the problem in Washington is spending, not taxation -- giving the president all the tax hikes he wants would generate about only two weeks worth of revenue, after all. But it didn’t take long for Woodruff to argue that the Clinton era tax cuts were the basis for strong economic growth. Norquist stood his ground and noted the role a conservative Republican Congress played in policies that helped fuel economic growth in the 1990s:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the polls I'm seeing do show that a majority of Americans say they're prepared to go along with higher taxes for people making over $250,000 a year. But let me ask you, Grover Norquist, about what happened in the past when tax rates went up under President Clinton and under previous eras. Tax rates went up, and there was still strong economic growth.
GROVER NORQUIST: Well, you can go to the Clinton years. The first two years of the Clinton administration had slow growth and not much job creation. And he raised taxes and he planned to spend every dollar that came in, in terms of a tax revenue, plus $200 billion. His five-year plan was $200 billion every year out because he was going to spend every penny that the tax increases brought in, plus $200 billion.
However, he lost the House and the Senate because the American people objected to his tax increase. For six years, you had a Republican House and Senate. They didn't let him spend the money he wanted to spend. So the budget went into balance. They cut the capital gains tax, which gave you growth.
So, the last six years, there were pro-growth tax cuts, and they didn't spend the money he wanted to. So it is true that, if you elect a Republican House and Senate as a result of tax increases, it helps with growth.
In fact, Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey wrote in The Fiscal Times on December 5 that it was reduction in federal spending as a share of GDP that spurred the economic boom under Clinton:
In his eight years as President, Clinton reduced federal spending to 18.2 percent of GDP from 22.1 percent, thanks in large part to a Republican-controlled Congress that forced the issue. Defense spending as a portion of GDP declined by 1.8 points, but non-defense spending dropped by 2.2 points. Clinton and the Republicans in Congress cut spending on domestic discretionary programs as well as entitlement spending through welfare reform.
What followed afterward is instructive to the real problem of our current trillion-dollar trajectory of deficit spending. George Bush increased federal spending as a share of GDP by 2.6 points in two terms, and it wasn’t just spent on defense; the increase was split evenly between defense and non-defense spending, a remarkable statistic considering the two wars waged in those eight years.
The real debate over deficits isn’t over whether to go back to Clinton-era tax rates. It’s how to get back to Clinton-era spending levels, and then create a tax system that will adequately fund it. The 18.2 percent level of federal spending is one piece of Clinton-era nostalgia worth recalling – as well as the bipartisanship that eventually produced it.
Woodruff also asked Norquist about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and his willingness to increase tax rates, but Norquist countered by saying “if you put taxes on the table, you never get spending restraint. And in point of fact, the only time we actually got spending restraint out of one of these deals was two years ago, when we had the Budget Control Act for the debt ceiling. We cut spending $2.5 trillion, not a dollar of tax increase. Coburn was wrong that you had to raise taxes to get the agreement.”
The NewsHour anchor remained wedded to hiking taxes, asking (emphasis mine), “if there were a guarantee, a commitment from the administration, from Democrats in the Congress they are going to vote and support reductions in spending, would you then favor a balanced plan that would include higher taxes?”
The problem of course is that past efforts at coupling tax hikes with spending cuts have never worked, as any student of President Reagan's negotiations with Democrats in the House of Representatives proved. Indeed, it was the lessons of those failures that spurred Norquist, a Reagan acolyte, to found Americans for Tax Reform.
Woodruff also tried to invoke the phantom savings the president has promised, but Norquist aptly pointed out the administration is playing math games and double counting:
WOODRUFF: The administration -- the president has already talked about changes in Medicare. Just yesterday, he left open the possibility of raising the retirement age, which would lower the cost for Medicare -- I'm sorry -- not the retirement age, but the eligibility age for Medicare. That would cut the costs of Medicare, a significant entitlement.
NORQUIST: The spending restraint in his budget, what he put forward and every Democrat voted against in the House and the Senate, was to save a trillion dollars by not occupying Iraq for the next decade. That's not a serious effort. The Iraqis kicked us out of the country.
It's not a real budget cut. He also wants to save a trillion dollars by counting tax cuts that have already -- spending cuts that have already been put into law as part of the previous agreement.
That's selling the same horse again. So that's $2 trillion of what he called spending cuts. One's phony. The other's already in law. He hasn't yet gotten serious about spending restraint.
Last, but not least, Woodruff turned to another liberal journalistic meme: suggesting the no-tax hike pledge Republicans sign was fundamentally about Norquist, not about keeping a promise to serve the people by refusing to raise taxes and grow government:
WOODRUFF: And, finally, Grover Norquist, will there be a political price to pay for Republicans who vote to raise taxes, if that is what it comes down to?
NORQUIST: Well, I think Republicans will take a look. Most Republicans have committed, not to me, but to their constituents, that they won't raise taxes and they will fight against tax increases.
They have to -- whatever they vote for, they have to go to their constituents and say, this wasn't a tax increase or let me explain to you what I did. But they have to talk to their constituents. Most Republicans have made it very clear they're not interested in raising taxes. They want to reform government.