Photo: Coalition To Reduce Spending
With Republicans preparing to cave on White House demands to raise taxes, GOP House leaders have adjusted their focus to the other side of the government balance sheet, and demanding specific and substantial budget cuts be included in any fiscal cliff deal. The shift represents a broader sea-change in the Republican Party, as conservative ideology moves gradually away from the anti-tax dogma codified by Grover Norquist to an emphasis on reducing government spending and cutting the national debt.
At the centre of this change is Jonathan Bydlak, a 29-year-old Princeton graduate who wants to do for the issue of deficit reduction what Grover Norquist has done for taxes.
A relative political outsider — he worked for a hedge fund before getting his start in politics as fundraising director for Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign — Bydlak is the head of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, a new organisation modelled after Grover Norquist’s Americans For Tax Reform.
Backed by celebrity investor Peter Schiff, the Coalition asks federal lawmakers to sign an ATR-style pledge to reject any increases in federal borrowing and vote only for balanced budget amendments. So far, the pledge has 24 signatories, including Texas Senator-elect Ted Cruz, a rising star in the GOP.
We recently checked in with Bydlak to find out more about his pledge, and about why he thinks spending has eclipsed taxes as the central issue for a new generation of Republicans.
Here’s our lightly-edited Q&A:
There has been a lot of criticism of Grover Norquist in the news recently. What makes you want to repeat his model?
I think that Grover’s model has been an extremely effective one. He’s been extremely effective at getting candidates to commit and hold to a promise not to raise taxes. I’ve always thought that it was odd that no one has applied that model to the spending side of the equation. You can also look at the spread of term limits in the 90s, which also utilized a pledge model and was very effective. So I think we have a couple of examples where this a model that works in terms of injecting accountability into the political process.
The pledge is very valuable because first of all, it provides information to voters, so when someone says ‘I’m a fiscal conservative, I’m serious about the debt,’ we’re defining what that means. And then when those candidates get into office, you have it writing, and you have a means to hold them accountable.
Has spending replaced taxes as the key issue defining the Republican Party?
I think it is fair way of putting it. People realise today in a way that they didn’t realise even five years ago that spending is the most important economic issue we’re dealing with.
I think that for a long time, Grover’s pledge made sense because the fear of raising taxes was a check on the fear of raising spending. So if you held taxes in check, there would only be a certain amount of revenue available to fund a government program so you’re able to keep the growth of government under control in that way.
But the political climate has changed — there is far more of a willingness to borrow than before, and that requires a new solution.
The problem has been that both parties think we can print money to finance whatever we want. So now we’re willing to spend way beyond what our available tax revenue is. Our argument is that that is actually far more pernicious than if you’re just taxing to pay for programs. You can take the food away from the beast, but if you’ve got a feeding tube shoved down his throat, you’re not really starving him.
So I think that Grover was very successful for a long time, but unless you have someone focus on spending and the debt, Grover’s ability to keep low taxes is going to be unhelpful because ultimately when you vote for a spending increase, you’re really voting for a future tax increase.
So is the Coalition To Reduce Spending also against raising revenue?
Our organisation is agnostic on the issue of taxes. We are advocating for the spending side of the equation.
I’ll add some caveats to that though. One is that I fully understand that the political reality is such that you may need to accept some increase in revenue for a decrease in spending — everyone is willing to draw the line in different ways.
I think everyone is willing to make some sort of bargain — the question is what bargain are you willing to take, and exactly how sure could you be that the proposed spending cuts would actually happen? One of the arguments that Grover has made many times, and which I think is legitimate, is that you make these deals, the taxes come immediately and the spending cuts never come, so as a result you just end up raising taxes.
Have Republicans been leading on the issue of spending? What would you like to see from the GOP going forward?
One of the unfortunate things is that while Republicans tend to talk better than Democrats on these issues, their follow-through tends to be just as poor.
Part of what we’re trying to do is rebrand the issue in a way that is not seen as partisan or even political. Everyone has to balance budgets in their own lives. Most people in their personal lives understand that when you’re spending more than you’re taking in, the solution is not to go to your boss and ask for a massive raise, its to seriously rethink what you’re spending your money on. That’s a solution that really transcends party lines.
We want to show is that there is support for cutting spending and balancing the budget in all geographic areas, in all socioeconomic classes, and on all parts of the political spectrum — which I think is ultimately going to make our political advocacy work that much more influential.
You can believe that everything the government does is great while also recognising that we shouldn’t be spending more than we’re taking in and that we should be living within our means.
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