Remember to Play the Long Game

By Grover Norquist

Why does the federal government spend so much money? Why have the size and scope and cost of government grown over time? Other "industries" have become a smaller part of the economy over time: Agriculture. Manufacturing. Technology has made other "services" less expensive: Computing capacity. Telecommunications.

To begin with, it is only recently that one party was, even rhetorically, committed to reducing the size of government. For many years after the civil war the two parties were simply regional parties of the North (Republican) and South (Democrat). Only during the political lifetime of Ronald Reagan did the Republican Party organize itself in the name of limited government.

Indeed, the term RINO-Republican In Name Only-came into use because too many "Republicans" were not committed to limiting the power of the state. And before Goldwater, Reagan and Ron Paul there were no RINOs because there was no presumed worldview demanded of anyone calling themselves Republican. You simply had to live North of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Reagan Republican party was national, not regional. The unifying factor was that everyone around the Reagan Republican table was there because they shared the issue that motivated their vote: They wanted to be left alone. Taxpayers: Leave my income and wealth alone. Homeschoolers: Leave me alone to control my children's education. Gun owners: Leave my Second Amendment rights alone. People of faith: Leave me alone to practice my faith and transmit it to my children. People in business: Leave my business and professional life alone.

Those Americans employed in the legitimate functions of the central government (those bits actually mentioned in the Constitution) such as defense of the nation and the judicial system-soldiers and police-tend to be support limited government, for they are part of the "leave us alone coalition;" they work to keep the Canadians on their side of the border and our neighbors out of our cars and houses.

That explains why Republican majorities in Congress will never steal your guns or bash home schooling or religious liberty or raise your taxes. Republicans understand that those are organized constituencies for the party that will leave if their issue if betrayed (see Bush 41 and 1990 tax hikes leading to the loss in 1992).

Understanding the structure of the Reagan Republican Party-a coalition of groups and individuals who wish to be left alone on their primary, vote moving issue-also explains the failure of the Bush 43 years. Why did spending drift upwards even with a GOP House, Senate, and Presidency? The answer is that Bush could tell gun owners, "I will not regulate guns, but I will spend too much." He could tell taxpayers, "I will not raise your taxes-I will in fact cut your taxes each year...and then spend a little too much. People of faith, I will leave your homeschooling, Christian radio stations, and parochial schools alone and then spend a tad too much."

No part of the Reagan coalition demanded more spending, but there was no faction, no group, no block that was clearly identifiable that would throw something heavy or walk out of the room when spending grew so long as the government left their primary issue alone.

The tea party movement in 2009 and 2010 ended all that. Now there was a verifiable, visible, tangible voting bloc that focused on overall size of government. America's preeminent community organizer, Barack Obama, finally created the movement that acted in politics on the issue of government overspending.

Adding the tea party to the coalition of taxpayers, property owners, homeschoolers, people focused on religious liberty, businessmen and women completed the circle. Now a president or congress wishing to spend too much-no matter how low taxes are kept and gun control is stopped-would be met with steel, not shoulder shrugs.

The tea party movement made the smashing victory of 2010 possible and the 87 freshmen elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 led the fight to ban earmarks. That ban was the second turning point in the fight against spending. Earmarks are numerically only a small fraction of government spending, some estimate $40 billion. But they were the currency of corruption, the government spending in targeted congressional districts and states that literally bought the votes of Congressmen and Senators for bigger budgets and growing government. Congressmen who opposed big spending bills found themselves voting for the entire bill because an earmark of theirs was wrapped inside the legislation.

A congressman trying to get his earmark in a bill had no time or interest in looking at what else went into the overall legislation. A secondary effect was that lobbying firms in Washington would trade campaign contributions for earmarks. This lightly disguised corruption also kept congressmen in DC holding fundraising events with lobbyists rather than back in the district raising campaign contributions from taxpayers and businessmen. That is why so many politicians can, with a straight face, say "everyone I speak with demands more government spending."

A very old, very unfunny joke in Washington is that there are three political parties: Republicans, Democrats and Appropriators. Ending earmarks took away the ability of appropriators to use earmarks as bribes or hostages to control the rest of Congress as they spent and spent and spent.

These three changes: the tea party movement, the creation of limiting spending as a vote-moving issue, the ending of earmarks, and the weakening of appropriators have created the progress of the past few months, a block by block fight with the Washington establishment to claw back trillions in additions to the national debt and blatant, intentional ignorance of the unsustainability of the entitlement programs.

Those who wish to continue the government's profligate spending habits have three tricks up their sleeves: refocusing the debate away from government spending to the deficit, demanding that cutting discretionary spending should wait until after the entitlements problem is "fixed," and focusing on this year rather than long term trends.

When the nation focuses on reducing government spending as a percentage of the economy there are only two solutions: 1. Spend less and 2. Grow the economy faster.

Free market conservatives are willing to cut spending. The president and his allies in Congress are not. Free market conservatives have a collection of pro-growth policies: cut the top tax rate from 35% to 25%, abolish the death tax, abolish the capital gains tax, deregulate, and enact free trade agreements and tort reform. The spenders in Washington have no policy proposals that will grow the economy. None. As long as the nation is focused on spending as a percentage of the economy, supporters of the free market have all the answers and supporters of the state have none.

But if we are stupid enough to focus not on total spending but on the deficit-the difference between what the government spends this year and what they take by force in taxes this year-then the statists have a solution: just raise taxes.

This is why no advocate of limited government or Reagan Republican should ever allow themselves to leave the high ground of focusing on "spending as a percent of the economy" and move to the swampland of "deficit reduction," where tax hikes are the moral and economic and political equal of spending restraint.

A second ploy for those who have no interest in cutting back on government is to belittle all efforts to make small cuts while the entitlement system remains unreformed. This is actually an attempt to stop us from removing the low hanging fruit, to stop us from making small budget cuts. It is making the perfect the enemy of the good. This was the hypocritical criticism of our drive to ban earmarks; "Why, earmarks are only $40 billion and the deficit is a trillion," some said. But every step in the direction of lower spending is progress.

Phony "budget hawks" also like to demand that the budget must be balanced in one year or five years or ten years. They make the time horizon short enough that meeting that deadline with spending cuts would be obviously unreasonable. Therefore the only "reasonable" position is to raise taxes.

If we can avoid being distracted from our true goal of limiting the size of government as a percentage of the economy, take every spending cut we can get the moment it is politically possible, and not place imaginary time limits on our progress to liberty, we can reform entitlements in a politically popular campaign that will also dramatically reduce spending in the near term and cut spending in half within one generation. And with the national debt nearly equal to the GDP, we must eagerly take every spending cut-no matter how small-which we can get.


Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform, a taxpayer advocacy group he founded in 1985 at the request of President Ronald Reagan. He serves on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union, the National Rifle Association, and The Center for the National Interest. He is the author of the book Leave us Alone - Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives.