(Jim Lo Scalzo / European…)
Opinions differ about what sparked the fall of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the mid-1950s and the ending of the anti-communist witch hunts he spearheaded, but some historians peg the moment at June 9, 1954, when chief Army counsel Joseph Welch uttered his famous rebuke: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" We're reminded of this because today there's another bully whose stranglehold over Congress is paralyzing that body, to the detriment of the majority of Americans who disagree with his single-minded crusade. This time his name is Grover Norquist, and his grip over the nation's budget will only be loosened if more GOP lawmakers find the courage to defy him.
Norquist's bugaboo isn't communists, but taxes. As head of Americans for Tax Reform, he pressures lawmakers — overwhelmingly Republicans — into signing his organization's pledge not to raise taxes, and then threatens the political careers of those who deviate. This is destroying hopes that the bipartisan congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is charged with recommending at least $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years, will succeed, or that Democrats and Republicans can agree on any kind of plan to create jobs and boost the economy. Former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairman of President Obama's fiscal commission, told the deficit panel Tuesday that Republicans were "in thrall" to Norquist, taking consideration of revenue increases to balance the budget off the table.
The notion that such broad deficit reductions could be achieved without either increasing revenues or ravaging the public services that Americans demand is a fantasy, as Simpson and other experts on fiscal policy suggested. All four experts addressing the panel Tuesday, including former GOP Sen. Pete Domenici, who chaired the Senate Budget Committee for more than a decade, agreed that both tax hikes and cuts to entitlement programs should be part of the package. There are some signs, albeit faint ones, that Republican members of Congress are starting to agree. On Wednesday, a letter to the deficit committee signed by 40 House Republicans (including many who had signed Norquist's pledge) and 60 Democrats was released saying that "all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table."
Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), who has signed the no-tax pledge, told the Washington Post that if he had a nickel for every Republican who said he supported the letter's goal but didn't dare cross Norquist by signing it, he'd be "rich and retired." But even many of the letter's signatories were quick to deny that they supported tax hikes, saying they were merely in favor of considering other revenue increases.
The deficit fight isn't all about Republican intransigence; Democrats have been unwilling to consider the kind of entitlement cuts, particularly involving Medicare, that experts say are needed to get a handle on the national debt. But Democrats have demonstrated far more willingness to compromise, in large part because they don't have a Norquist holding the Sword of Damocles over their heads. How much more damage does he have to do before more leaders stand up for decency?