STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So Ted Yoho did not sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Some Republicans who have now suggest they might be able to ignore it as part of a larger budget deal. That calls attention to the activist who wrote it years ago, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who also came by our studios.
I asked Congressman Yoho, of the three moving parts here, which is more important to deal with: taxes, spending, federal debt? Debt. That was his answer. Debt. Is he wrong?
GROVER NORQUIST: Spending is the most important, because the other two derive from the total cost of government, is government spending.
INSKEEP: Well, I think what he's saying, though, is that the national debt is what is seen as a national security threat to the country, that you have, ultimately, debts that you cannot pay, that are unsustainable.
NORQUIST: Right. But the reason you have debts is because you spend too much money. Look, if the government spends $100, whether it takes 90 in taxes and borrows 10, or it takes all hundred, a hundred's gone. It doesn't matter one way or the other. It's the same deadweight cost to the economy.
Now, look, a freshman congressman that gets here hasn't yet figured out the games that politicians play. They cheated Reagan, OK, and they said we'll cut $3 of spending for every dollar of tax increase. Spending went up, not down. They did the same thing to Bush a few years later in 1990. Bush and Reagan were sophisticated people. They were not fools. They wanted the spending cuts, and yet by focusing on the deficit rather than total spending, they ended up getting taken. So, spending is the deadweight cost of government. We've got to keep taxes down. If you raise taxes, they just spend it.
INSKEEP: Is there any political situation in which it may be vital economic policy to accept higher tax revenues as part of a larger deal that also includes spending cuts?
NORQUIST: OK. You're talking about a hypothetical, and this is where someone like Lindsey Graham, Republican who's from South Carolina, has got himself wrapped around the axle.
INSKEEP: He's one of the Republicans who's spoken skeptically of your anti-tax pledge. Go on. Go on.
NORQUIST: No, his anti-tax pledge. He made a commitment to the people of South Carolina. But he has made very clear - and we had a long conversation about this, because I trying to figure out what he was talking about. He images that the Democrats will agree to fundamental reform of entitlements, something they haven't done in, oh, I don't know, 60 years. But we imagine that they're going to. We imagine a pink unicorn.
Now, if you had a pink unicorn, how many dollars in taxes would you raise to trade for the pink unicorn? Since pink unicorns do not exist in the real world, it's never occurred to me to worry about the senator from South Carolina. He's not going to vote for a deal, because the kind of 10-to-one ratio deal he's talking about with real iron-clad spending cuts is never going to happen.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You were arguing that the string of Republicans who have said, eh, forget about Grover Norquist, forget about this no-tax flexibility - you're saying that the way they have laid out the potential deal is never going to happen, and therefore they're not actually promising or talking about raising taxes at all?
NORQUIST: Well, I'm speaking, in that case, specifically for the senator from South Carolina. Now, again, we're talking about four or five people, here. OK? I mean, this is not a wave - and, by the way, the same four or five people that we're talking about in all my interviews two years ago when we were going through this same fiscal cliff, although it was the debt ceiling bill. So it's the same cast of characters that have been brought out for the photographs again. And in point of fact, the four or five guys did not turn into a snowball. In fact, we got two-and-a-half trillion in spending restraint and no tax increases, something Obama's trying to re-litigate now.
INSKEEP: Does the cliff need to be avoided, in your view? Is it even something to worry about?
NORQUIST: Well, there are two issues, here. One is the automatic spending cuts. Those are a good idea. I'm open to doing the same number of - in cuts, same size cuts, in a different way. Some of the defense people think that you could save the same amount in defense, but doing it more artfully than the sequester does. Fine by me - as long as it's the same number.
INSKEEP: You're happy to cut spending anywhere you can get it.
NORQUIST: Sure, absolutely, including the defense spending. Second: the $500 billion tax increase that hits on January 1st is something that the Ds have to figure out what to do with. What they did two years ago - what all the same players around the same table, the same chessboard with the same pieces in the same place - was a decision to extend everything two years. They're very likely to do that again at the end of the day, unless Obama overplays his hand. Because, as he made the mistake four years ago, he thinks somebody made him king, and he spent all that money and got the Tea Party and lost the House.
INSKEEP: Grover Norquist, thanks very much.
NORQUIST: You got it. Thanks.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Speaking to Steve Inskeep, the founder for Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist.