If the fiscal cliff is going to be avoided, more members of Congress need to follow the footsteps of the likes of Sen. Lindsey Graham and reject the constraints of pledges to oppose any and all tax increases. Compromise needs to be the order of the day in Congress in order to avoid a financial train wreck, and the very idea of rigid, ideological pledges such as one pushed by Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform erode any hope of reaching bipartisan agreement.
Graham, R-S.C., on Nov. 25 joined Rep. Peter King of New York and Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, both Republicans, in saying that the pledge is too rigid given the current threats to the economy, according to an Associated Press report.
Chambliss put it eloquently when he said, "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it (Norquist's) way then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."
Graham on ABC's "This Week" said, "When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece. Republicans should put revenue on the table. We're far in debt. We don't generate enough revenue."
These three Republicans are absolutely right, even if they might not be willing to raise tax rates they at least are demonstrating a willingness to expand revenue by capping deductions, as Graham suggests, affecting the wealthiest Americans. They may have to go further than that, but this is a start.
Graham tied his willingness to increase revenue to a commitment by Democrats to reform Medicare and Social Security. He's right about that, too. Compromise needs to be a two-way street. President Barack Obama and his party should seize on the subtle shift by some Republicans and offer entitlement reform in exchange for the added revenue so the country can avoid the "fiscal cliff" that is so shortly before us.
No-tax pledges - at the federal or state level - lock politicians in to positions that may not be tenable as conditions change. The fiscal cliff - a combination of mandated federal spending cuts and tax increases precipitated indirectly by years of profligate spending that has sent this nation's debt to levels that threaten to crush our fiscal stability - is the textbook example of those shifting conditions.
The spending cuts - to defense and domestic programs - and the tax increases are set to take effect on Jan. 1 as part of an agreement that was reached last year to raise the debt ceiling. When lawmakers were negotiating the debt ceiling increase, the threat of $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts over 10 years - known as sequestration - was used as a stick to encourage lawmakers to negotiate less severe budget reductions. They failed.
Although Republicans deserve blame for not being willing to negotiate on tax increases on the wealthiest Americans, Democrats have been equally unwilling to talk about reforming Medicare and Social Security that are on unsustainable courses and add to the nation's debt crisis.
Americans can't afford the risk of being plunged into a recession that may be worse than the 2008 Great Recession because lawmakers are beholden to a pledge that prevents them from negotiating with the other party. Republicans falling on their collective sword to protect current tax rates for the wealthiest Americans could be meaningless if the economy collapses because the country runs over the fiscal cliff. If that happens, unemployment probably would increase, perhaps beyond 9 percent by some government estimates, and millions of Americans who suffered during the last recession would be hit hard once again.
It is telling that, according to a recent CNN poll, 67 percent of Americans favor avoiding the fiscal cliff with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Americans seem to want compromise, not gridlock. Congress should oblige them.
Graham and the small number of Republicans who currently agree with him that Norquist's no tax pledge is not sacrosanct are taking the prudent approach. It would be refreshing to see more Republicans shed their intransigence and express a willingness to engage in give-and-take with Democrats rather than refuse to budge while keeping the nation on course to financial crisis.
Republicans can negotiate and still hold fast to conservative values by agreeing to tax reform that eliminates or reduces some loopholes and deductions that benefit the most wealthy while urging that tax rates be held steady. In taking some action, Congress needs to be wary of unintended side effects such as declines in charitable giving if such donations no longer carry a tax benefit or carry a reduced benefit. But at the very least, such a position taken by larger numbers of Republicans would demonstrate a willingness to negotiate and could help steer us clear of another painful recession.