The window that appeared thrown open to House Republicans on the knotty question of what is or isn’t a tax increase in the context of deficit-reduction negotiations appears now shut—by Speaker John Boehner and Washington’s oracle of tax policy absolutism, Grover Norquist.
Interestingly, it was Norquist himself, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who set the quicksilver re-examination of tax increases in motion.
In an editorial in Thursday’s Washington Post that flew around House GOP offices faster than the Shuttle Atlantis, it looked as if Norquist was giving House Republicans room to vote for an end to the Bush tax cuts as part of a so-called grand bargain on deficit reduction that included tax reform lowering individual and corporate rates.
In the editorial, The Post asked Norquist, whose organization sponsors the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, whether, “according to Mr. Norquist’s interpretation of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, lawmakers have the technical leeway to bring in as much as $4 trillion in new tax revenue—the cost of extending President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for another decade—without being accused of breaking their promise."
Norquist appeared to respond in the affirmative, according to The Post. "'Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase,’ Mr. Norquist told us. So it doesn’t violate the pledge? 'We wouldn’t hold it that way,' he said."
But Boehner said he thought letting the Bush tax cuts expire would violated the pledge.
“I'll let you and the other pundits decide what it means,” Boehner said of the editorial with Norquist’s comments. “I've never voted to raise taxes and I don't intend to. That would not be my goal in any way, shape, or form.”
Within minutes of Boehner’s comments, ATR released a statement it said was designed to clarify the Post editorial.
“ATR opposes all tax increases on the American people. Any failure to extend or make permanent the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, in whole or in part, would clearly increase taxes on the American people.”
Norquist’s group said it opposed the outlines of the new "Gang of Six" proposal and the fiscal commission headed by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson that, at President Obama’s direction, created a deficit-reduction plan which inspired much of the Gang of Six framework.
“The outlines of the plans are deliberately hazy, but it appears that both Obama’s Simpson-Bowles commission proposal and the Gang-of-Six proposal dramatically increase taxes on the American people,” ATR said. “It is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to trade temporary tax reductions for permanent tax hikes."
ATR said all debt and deficit-reduction negotiations “should focus totally and exclusively on reducing government overspending,” adding that “ATR has not altered either its policy positions or opposition to all tax increases whatsoever in any debt negotiations.”
Only 6 of 240 House Republicans have not signed the tax pledge. Seven GOP senators have not.
This unequivocal walk-back of a moment of tax increase equivocation appears to dash the ethereal hopes that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., expressed on Thursday morning. Hoyer said he hoped Norquist had given Boehner and House Republicans a green light to vote for higher taxes within the Gang of Six proposal to reduce the deficit by $3.7 trillion over 10 years.
“I think Mr. Norquist has made a very important statement that I hope they [Republicans] each take into consideration,” Hoyer said.
“I am hopeful Speaker Boehner, who has indicated that he wants to have a large, grand design, will be able to purse that in a balanced way.”
Hopes remain a constant in the increasingly tense debt-ceiling drama—they are as plentiful as rumors about a deal, a new path to a deal, or new wrinkles in old proposals. But the hopes and rumors die rapidly under the unrelenting weight of ideology and gridlock.
This article appears in the July 21, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.