Steve Chapman
It comes as no surprise to hear anti-tax activist Grover Norquist talk about tax cuts, but it does come as a surprise to hear him raise the subject of pink unicorns.

Pink unicorns are purely imaginary -- a trait he says they share with the spending curbs that Republicans hope to get from the administration in exchange for a tax increase. Norquist says Democrats only want to enlarge the government and his GOP allies would be naive to make any deals with them.

History, he says, vindicates him. Congressional Democrats, he told National Public Radio, "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." Reagan and Bush traded for a pink unicorn and didn't get it.

In this view, the only way to make politicians behave frugally is to reduce taxes and revenues. "If you raise taxes, they just spend it," he said.

That is often true. But it's apparent that if you reduce taxes, the politicians will also spend more. Ronald Reagan won big tax cuts, and federal spending rose by more than 20 percent, adjusted for inflation. George W. Bush did the same, and the budget ballooned. If tax increases aren't a sure thing, neither are tax cuts.

In his review of history, Norquist omits the one time in the past four decades when the budget actually came into balance: the 1990s. Why? Because it badly undermines his case.

Under Bill Clinton, income tax rates rose. In fact, his critics reviled him for enacting "the biggest tax increase in American history." Yet the tax hike did not open the spending floodgates. In inflation-adjusted terms, federal outlays grew very slowly, and as a share of the economy, they shrank dramatically -- from 21.4 percent to 18.2 percent, about what they were during the Eisenhower administration.

Why did that happen? Not because Clinton was a tightfisted Scrooge eager to dismantle big government, but because congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, forced him into an agreement to balance the budget, which required constraints on spending.

Under Clinton, total federal expenditures grew by just 1.5 percent per year, inflation-adjusted -- 40 percent less than under Reagan and 70 percent less than under George W. Bush. And did George H.W. Bush really get snookered? During his presidency, spending growth was only slightly higher than under Clinton.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate