- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts was more than a local referendum on health care reform. It was a national referendum on the direction this country has taken, in particularly over the course of the past few months - a referendum on bailouts, reckless spending, and looming tax increases.

Against the background of what has become the first electoral victory of the Tea Party movement, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on yet another massive increase in the Federal debt ceiling, and along with it a dangerous amendment which may aggravate our nation’s fiscal situation.

Sens. Kent Conrad, D-ND, and Judd Gregg, R-NH, have put forth a proposal to set up a commission to create legislation making wholesale changes to government spending and the tax code, which will be offered as an amendment to the debt ceiling resolution in the coming days.

Their amendment would establish an eighteen-member task force comprised of ten Democrat and eight Republican Congressmen, Senators, and Administration officials. A report from the commission would need to gather fourteen votes in order to make an expedited recommendation to both bodies. The recommendation would only pass with a supermajority vote in each chamber. This all sounds so innocuous, so reasonable. But despite the appearance of protection for taxpayers, this commission would be guaranteed to recommend a net tax increase.

Why? It is Washington, after all, and you have to factor in the political realities. After President Obama and his tax-and-spend friends have gone on a spending spree of unprecedented proportions, they are looking for a way to lure Republicans into claiming joint ownership of the problem and getting their fingerprints on a tax increase, thus the bipartisan commission that puts everything on the table. Every Democrat on the commission would insist on tax increases to balance spending cuts in the recommendation so really, there is no conceivable scenario whereby the commission would issue a report that does not contain tax hikes.

What’s more, we’ve been through similar scenarios that have put everything on the table before, and paid dearly for it. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush famously broke his Read My Lips pledge when he signed off on the infamous budget deal with Congressional Democrats at Andrews Air Force Base. The deal promised $1 in new taxes for every $2 in new spending cuts. A simple look at the budget in the years after the agreements proves what one might guess: the tax increases became law and, lo and behold, not only did the Democrats break their promise to cut spending below the Congressional Budget Office baseline - they actually spent $23 billion above CBO’s pre-budget deal spending baseline.

Given that it is Washington, after all, what should compel us to believe that things would be different this time around?

If we want to be guided by history, why not look at examples that have actually worked? Congress in 1990 enacted the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act. The BRAC process led to the successful closure of military bases that were underused in the wake of the Cold War, and has consequently helped to streamline military spending. Note that the BRAC commission would not have worked if it had been tasked with either closing unnecessary bases or raising taxes to pay for unnecessary bases. It worked because it had one job: to save taxpayer money by closing unnecessary bases, and that’s the model we should follow now. There really is no reason this successful model could not be applied to all of the rapidly expanding federal agencies and programs.

In fact, conservatives on Capitol Hill are currently looking into creating a BRAC-style spending-only commission, which has its historic precedent in the Joint Committee on Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures, the so-called Byrd Committee, dating back to World War II. Such a BRAC-style spending-only commission would be the prudent course of action, as it would not run the risk of being hijacked as a vehicle for a massive tax increase, and even possibly a European-style Value Added Tax (VAT), for which the Conrad-Gregg commission is a stalking horse. To give the commission more clout, and in line with the wishes of taxpayers, its deliberations should be fully transparent.

This week’s election should serve as a wake-up call, not just for Democrats, but for all of us, that the fiscal challenges were facing are not just real, but that taxpayers are fully aware of their size and scope. They want less spending, and they want greater transparency. In a well-crafted BRAC-style spending-only commission that holds its deliberations not behind closed doors, but under the watchful eye of the American people, Congress would have a vehicle to bring about the change taxpayers are looking for.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform. Sandra Fabry is Executive Director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability.

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