When President Obama won re-election last month by a larger margin than even his most fervent supporters had expected, though with fewer popular votes than he received in 2008, most commentators initially opined that not much had changed in Washington. The president would remain in the White House for another four years, the Democrats would keep control of the Senate, and the House would stay in Republican hands. Most Republicans re-elected to both houses of Congress had publicly pledged not to vote to raise taxes under any circumstances. And most of those Republicans have adhered to that promise—until now.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the false congressional fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party began to reveal their true selves. Led by the Republican presidential standard bearer in 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, at least a half-dozen Republican members of Congress have renounced their public promises never to vote to raise taxes. In the case of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Congressman and Senator-elect Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., they had restated their promises, directly or indirectly, as recently as last month during their successful campaigns. Did they blatantly dupe the voters? Did they genuinely change their minds? Did they ever sincerely accept the pro-freedom anti-tax logic?
The Founders certainly embraced the pro-freedom anti-tax logic, as they gave us a Constitution that barred the federal government from imposing any direct tax on any persons. That was part of the genius of the document. If the feds really needed cash, they'd need to tax the states. If the states were feeling over-taxed, they could block federal taxes in the Senate, where for 135 years senators were chosen by state governments as delegates to the Senate, rather than elected by voters. This procedure, too, was part of the Founders' genius. It came about in order to assure a place at the federal table for the states, many of which were older than the federal government and all of which retained their sovereignty when they voluntarily joined the union. This procedure for choosing senators was also a check on the growth of the federal government.
Those constitutional provisions were cast aside during the progressive era about 100 years ago, when, during a period of just five years, the Constitution was amended so that the states lost their place at the federal table and Congress could tax incomes, and the feds got a new printing press for cash in the form of the Federal Reserve.
I have described this dreadful time in our history in my new book, Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom. They did so by inverting the concept of limited government. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, every president from George Washington to TR's predecessor, William McKinley, accepted the truism that the federal government is one of limited powers, and it may only in engage in behavior that is specifically authorized by the Constitution or reasonably inferable therefrom.
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who ran against each other and who hated each other, turned this value on its head. They jointly argued that the Constitution does not mean what it says and is not the Supreme Law of the Land as it states. They held that the federal government can do whatever it wishes unless those wishes are expressly prohibited by the Constitution.
For 100 years, the Republican Party resisted the progressive onslaught. As recently as this past election just a few weeks ago, Republicans argued that increased tax revenue, whether from increased tax rates or from decreased tax deductions, effectively moves wealth from the productive sector and delivers it to the consuming sector—which would be the government.
This argument is really one of the basic laws of economics, so why are Republicans now rejecting it? I suspect that they are drunk with power and have concluded that they—just like Obama did—can assure their re-elections, their continued possession of governmental power, if they deliver bigger pieces of the federal pie to the folks back home. Stated differently, they are unwilling to address a system that soon will deliver more in entitlement payments and interest payments on government debt than it collects in revenue by reducing the entitlements, shrinking the government, cutting the debt, returning to the confines of the Constitution and letting hardworking Americans retain what is theirs. Instead, they now want to raise federal taxes.
They would be unwise to try to pull this off—and would be wise to recall recent history. The last Republican president to pledge "Read my lips. NO NEW TAXES" and then violate that promise was dispatched by the voters to a hotel suite in Houston, rather than to four more years in the White House. I bet George Herbert Walker Bush today would stick to his pledge.