That advice comes a little late for the promise-promiscuous Republicans in Congress, who are currently negotiating with Democrats on extending the debt ceiling so that American exceptionalism does not turn out to mean exceptionally broke bums whose word of honor means nothing.
When I say negotiating, I don’t mean actually indulging in give and take, but just putting on a bit of a show, foolishly dancing around the economic abyss, Kabuki theater, American style, only with untalented actors.
The Democrats are not guiltless in the continuing farce, of course, because their first love is spending. But at least they have not plighted their troth to their money-mad mistress. They can, if they choose, be flexible.
The same cannot be said of the Republicans, who come to the table promised to another. They have taken someone called Grover Norquist for their awfully wedded wife — strictly for political purposes, of course — promising to love, honor and obey his pledge of no new taxes.
Nearly all the Republicans in Congress have signed this pledge, making compromise on this issue unlikely if not impossible.
Just about everybody sane realizes that a fair deal on the debt ceiling will require a mixture of spending cuts and new revenue, i.e., taxes — the despised word of the hour. But sanity has nothing to do with it. Nor does respect for our system of government.
Republicans make a great show of venerating the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, but the system so wisely bequeathed to us demands compromise — otherwise deadlock is certain, and soon enough disaster.
With a debt default deadline of Aug. 2, disaster beckons, thanks to the fealty promised to Mr. Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who once famously said: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
With the vast majority of congressional Republicans pledged to do the plumbing work, good luck finding your Medicare and Social Security in the bathtub now being installed. They’ll be going down the drain.
In playing chicken with national economic disaster — perhaps world disaster, because if little bankrupt Greece can threaten international markets, so can America (hey, we’re No. 1!) — the Republican anti-tax promise-keepers have forgotten their other promise.
That would be their congressional oath of office, which includes that old-fashioned stuff about bearing true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and well and faithfully discharging the duties of the office — all of which will be proved idle promises if the nation defaults for want of a way to pay its debts.
The trouble is that the Republicans are absolutely smitten by those who preach the anti-tax gospel to the extent that nothing else is important. In the era of the real tea party, in revolutionary Boston, the cry was “No taxation without representation.” This has now been edited to read “No taxation.”
In the thrall of their obsession, Republicans believe that the economy will be ruined if any tax anywhere is raised. Rather than allowing such a horror, they will ruin the economy rather than have taxes ruin the economy. This circular logic was last heard of during the Vietnam War, when it was said the village had to be destroyed in order save it.
We are at the moment of truth, so it is time for a little quiz: What wild-eyed liberal once said “it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant”?
Answer: President George Washington, in his farewell address of 1796.
So, what’s it going to be, boys and girls of the Republican delegation in Congress? What is more important to you: avoiding inconvenient taxes or causing unpleasant financial collapse? Which pledge do you favor: your pledge to the Agitated State of Grover Norquist or the United States of America?
As for me, I’m with George Washington: Taxes are a sometimes necessary pain.
But if I lose my retirement savings because Republicans want to be faithful to a guy who shares his name with a Muppet, or the Democrats prove themselves equally boneheaded, I am going to become monumentally agitated myself. That’s a promise I reckon a lot of us will make.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.