April 15, 2010
While driving to work this morning, I heard Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, being interviewed by the substitute host on Bill Bennett's "Morning in America" radio show. Today being the deadline for filing income tax returns, it was no mere coincidence. Norquist sounded very pleasant and reasonable as he criticized tax-and-spend Democrats and made the pitch for his lifetime mission of cutting taxes, but that [mild tone] of course was just a clever mascarade.
In June 2007, I described Norquist an "anti-tax kingpin," recounting in detail his controversial deeds over the years, and on Facebook a couple months ago I offended someone by referring to him as a "traitor." It was a rare lapse of my usually high standards and avoiding personal attacks, and in retrospect I should have chosen my words a bit more carefully. Norquist may not have given "aid and comfort to the enemy" (the standard definition of treason), but through his advocacy of fiscally unsound policies, he certain did contribute to the dangerously weak financial position in which our country currently finds itself, beholden to foreign creditors.
One peculiarity of Norquist is that he apparently has a soft spot in his heart for Vladimir Lenin, the first ruler of the Soviet Union, formed after the Russian Revolution. It sounds counterintuitive, given the sharp ideological split of one from the other, but the respective leadership styles of the two men are rather close matches, actually. In his book Blinded by the Right, covered at Media Matters, founder David Brock recalls his horror at witnessing destructive economic policies:
There was nothing traditionally conservative in Grover's approach. As I conformed myself to the movement, I was being inculcated into a radical cult that bore none of the positive attributes of classical conservatism-a sense of limits, fair play, Tory civility, and respect for individual freedom. On the contrary, Grover admired the iron dedication of Lenin, whose dictum "Probe with bayonets, looking for weakness" he often quoted, and whose majestic portrait hung in Grover's Washington living room. Grover kept a pet boa constrictor, named after the turn-of-the-century anarchist Lysander Spooner. He fed the snake mice, all of them named David Bonior, the outspoken liberal House whip.
Norquist categorically denied endorsing Lenin's tactics during Diane Rehm's NPR show in Washington; via Brendan Nyhan. You can listen to it yourself. Nevertheless, mainstream conservative Columnist Paul Gigot called Norquist "the V.I. Lenin of the anti-tax movement" in a Wall Street Journal editorial on April 14, 1994; see rightwingwatch.org. That source also states that on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" TV show, Norquist boasted about his relationship with the Bush Administration, "We is them, and they is us. When I walk through the White House, I recognize as many people as when I would walk through the Heritage Foundation."
Given that Bush's economic policy consisted essentially of one central thrust -- cutting taxes, [which has long been Norquist's central focus] -- there seems little doubt that Norquist had a strong relationship with the Bush administration. In 2001, The Nation called Norquist The "'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan." But now Norquist seems to shirk any responsibility for the big-deficit expansionist policies under Bush, which played a major role in the subsequent economic collapse of September 2008. Well, I don't blame him for wanting to disassociate himself from the sorry Bush legacy. "Miss me yet?" Nope.
So where are all of our hard-earned tax dollars going? Sadly, income tax revenues are barely sufficient to cover half of the Federal government's budget; most of the rest is borrowed. At the end of January, President Obama submitted to Congress his budget for Fiscal Year 2011, in which $1.56 trillion of the $3.8 trillion total would be borrowed. See Washington Post. Even under the rosiest scenarios of economic recovery, the Federal government will continue to run large budget deficits for years and years to come. Take a look at the nice graphical summary in the Washington Post.
It was mildly encouraging when the House voted to revive pay-as-you-go budget guidelines back in January, but then they also raised the debt ceiling for the second time in the last few months, which was not encouraging at all. But as Bruce Bartlett pointed out in forbes.com back in February, whatever Obama (or any president) proposes in his (or their) budget may not matter that much. He debunked a widespread misconception spread by journalists:
But at the end of the day the final budget has little if anything to do with the president's priorities. Congress mostly decides how the money will be spent and lobbyists probably have more to say about it than OMB does.
But the big fact about the federal budget is that more and more of it is effectively on automatic pilot; neither Congress nor the president have anything so say about it.
Sadly, there is a lot of truth in that blunt assessment. I replied on Facebook:
Very good historical overview, Bruce. To me, it spoke volumes that Obama's SOTU speech made Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security off limits to any budget stringency, laying bare his utter lack of seriousness. Perhaps the fact that the OMB budget no longer has a central role in the process is why presidents feel free to indulge in fantasies.
Are we being transformed yet?