I've had issues with the Norquist pledge in the past. Its biggest downside is that it allows Congress to spend with abandon -- as long as Washington doesn't pay for it.
The problem with punditry's obsession with the Norquist pledge is that it ignores the fact that Democrats walk lockstep down the highway of overspending -- without prompting. It's as if there is an unwritten no-cuts pledge that goes something like this:
If spending exceeds revenue, I pledge to oppose spending cuts and support only tax increases. Or throwing more dollars onto the $16 trillion mountain of national debt.
I pledge to argue for a "balanced" approach while I steadfastly weasel away from any meaningful attempt to curb spending on social programs.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., for example, oppose including entitlement reform in a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."
It's true. George W. Bush was no slouch at deficit spending. In his final budget, the year of his $700 billion financial bailout bill, Bush left the country with an annual deficit that exceeded $1 trillion. President Obama has surpassed Bush. His last three annual budgets added $5.2 trillion to the national debt.
And while Democrats blame the Bush tax cuts for creating $3.7 trillion in red ink over 10 years, they want to keep $3.trillion of those Bush tax cuts -- and blame Bush for the debt.
On Wednesday, Obama called on Congress to pass a bill to retain the Bush tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000. In the name of "balance," he asked Congress to pass a bill with tax increases but no spending cuts. Then he claimed that doing so would make it "a whole lot easier" to deal with deficit reduction later.
To avert the "fiscal cliff," Republicans might have to cave on the tax increase. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., suggested the GOP House get it over with pronto. That could be canny political advice.
But it cannot bode well for deficit reduction. We've seen how Congress cuts spending -- by promising what it won't deliver. The 1997 budget act promised a sustainable growth rate to curb runaway Medicare costs. Congress has voted to delay the mandated reduction in payments to doctors.
Without the "doc fix," Medicare would cut doctor payments by 27 percent -- a situation, the Heritage Foundation warns, that could "make it unaffordable for many doctors to continue accepting Medicare patients" and leave millions of seniors without care.
Everyone in Washington knows that the next budget deal will paper over the "doc fix" and other promised deficit reducers. What Washington passes, Washington can erase.
While the do-gooders call for the GOP to compromise in the name of balance, they are tipping the scales. Any tax hikes will be immediate. Any spending cuts will be open to revision.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com
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