A cynic might think it’s a little bit of theater we’re witnessing, political pantomime deliberately staged to make Republicans look like they’ve gone all reasonable and are willing to raise taxes. Others see this week’s headlines as the meticulously orchestrated end game in a 30-year strategy laid out by Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform. More likely it’s just a rush among journalists to tell a big story: Republicans are renouncing their fealty to Grover’s no-tax pledge and are ready to support tax hikes.
The media loves a good story, and this one is the stuff of drama. An awkward little man who rose to power as leader of an anti-government movement faces sudden mutiny, with his followers peeling off and his authority in question. In this story, Grover Norquist is part spurned lover and part emperor with no clothes.
We’re not buying it. Much as we love the idea of Grover losing his clout and credibility, there’s no evidence his followers (mostly Republicans, a few Democrats) have changed their minds about taxes. Even when they make noises about abandoning the pledge and embracing new revenues, they are nonetheless hewing to Norquist’s two-part pledge. Just listen to a few who’ve been making news with their allegedly new-found freedom:
Senator Bob Corker: “I’m not obligated on the pledge. I made Tennesseans aware, I was just elected, the only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve, when I’m sworn in this January.” But, “[my] proposal includes pro-growth federal tax reform, which generates more static revenue… by capping federal deductions at $50,000 without raising tax rates.”
Senator Lindsey Graham: “I agree with Grover — we shouldn’t raise rates — but I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can’t cap deductions and buy down debt…. I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform.”
Senator Saxby Chambliss: "Times have changed significantly, and 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." But (he tweeted), “I’m not in favor of tax increases. I’m in favor of significant tax reform 2 lower tax rates & generate additional revenue through job growth.”
Rep. John Boehner: “….[R]aising taxes on the so-called top two percent – half of those people are small-business owners that pay their taxes through their personal income tax filing every year. The goal here is to grow the economy and to cut spending. We’re not going to grow the economy if we raise tax rates on the top two rates.” And, “[w]e're willing to put revenue on the table as long as we're not raising rates.”
Rep. Tom Cole: “I think we ought to take the 98 percent deal right now. It doesn’t mean I agree with raising the top two. I don’t.” And, “I signed that pledge; I'm honored to do it. I don't think in this case we would be breaking it by making what are temporary tax cuts permanent....I want to make all of them permanent, quite frankly. “
None of these Republicans characterized as leading the mutiny against Grover’s no-tax pledge is getting anywhere near raising taxes, in both senses that the pledge mandates. It is often forgotten that support for making all the Bush tax cuts permanent amounts to another rate cut because by law, those rates are scheduled to all go up on January 1, 2013. They may cap a deduction here or there, but that will be outweighed by the generous Bush era rate cuts they (and to a large extent, the President) promise for 2013. And that’s exactly what the pledge they’ve all signed spells out:
ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.
Increasingly, too, the Republican House leadership is demanding revenue cuts. Where are the President’s cuts? What are the Democrats’ plans for entitlement reform? This is what Speaker Boehner is tweeting several times a day. And his lieutenant, Eric Cantor, remains clear his party is opposed to tax rate increases.
An organization like Americans for Tax Reform doesn’t spend upwards of $24 million in one election cycle if it’s not serious about getting its way, and Grover Norquist is a serious man. As he told Politico just this week:
“I want pro-taxpayer candidates to survive and thrive….. My goal is to have the Democrats also all take the pledge…. I'm not planning on losing the tax debate we're having right now, but the tax issue will be more powerful in 2014 and '16 than today. It gets more powerful.”
Let’s don’t kid ourselves or help the deep pocketed anti-tax lobbying machine peddle more myths. It’s a testament to Norquist’s thirty-year effort that four years into an historic economic crisis, a couple of closed loopholes looks like a win for the good guys. It’s not a win. Let’s view it instead as a chink in the armor, though – and redouble our own efforts.
Image of Norquist courtesy Liberaland.