Did Grover Norquist give House Republicans permission to raise taxes?
Do House Republicans need his permission?
Do they secretly crave it because Norquist—and only Norquist—can provide them political cover if they do raise taxes, thereby breaking the no-tax-increase pledge of his group, Americans for Tax Reform?
No, no, and NO.
“The commitment from Speaker [John] Boehner and the Republican leadership is stronger than the pledge,” Norquist told National Journal. “That’s the left’s fantasy, that I can give them permission. I can’t. This brouhaha has proved that.”
Norquist fielded calls on Thursday morning from nervous conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere wondering if in a two-hour editorial board meeting with The Washington Post he had green-lighted higher taxes as part of a deal to increase the nation’s debt ceiling. “I got questions like, ‘Is Grover opening the back door of the castle to let the barbarians in to raise taxes?’ No.”
It all started when Norquist told The Post that—by the letter of the pledge—it isn’t always a violation to allow temporary tax increases to expire. Norquist told National Journal the issue crops up regularly in state legislatures where tax increases are often passed as temporary measures to address a specific budget crisis. More than 1,200 state legislative figures—including 13 governors and five lieutenant governors—have signed the pledge and ATR monitors changes in tax policy at the state level avidly to track permanent and temporary policy changes.
From Norquist and ATR’s point of view, if a temporary tax increase lapses, no one has voted to cut taxes. They have merely adhered to existing policy. By that same logic, if a temporary tax cut is passed—say a specific tax incentive for an industry or a short-term lifting of a portion of the state sales tax—allowing that temporary policy to lapse is not a tax increase. “If nobody voted on anything, who would you shoot?” Norquist asked. “Nobody. Because nobody broke the pledge.” ATR would adjudicate and say a politician broke the pledge if he or she voted to extend a “temporary” tax increase beyond its promised duration.
Norquist’s contention was the basis for a Thursday Post editorial indicating he might be open to a federal tax increase as part of deficit-reduction deal linked to raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
“I’m not mad at The Washington Post,” Norquist said. “We haven’t had to articulate this on the federal level as much and we need to articulate it better.”
Norquist thinks allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire is a bad idea and that it “wouldn’t pass the laugh test” to say that allowing tax cuts valued at $4 trillion over 10 years to lapse wouldn’t amount to a tax increase on millions of Americans. “If everybody looks at it and says it’s a tax increase, it’s a tax increase.”
The Bush tax cuts were passed under Senate rules of budget reconciliation, which placed them within a 10-year budget horizon. Norquist says the pledge’s application has been tested by constant extensions of “temporary” tax credits and yearly “patches” to the Alternative Minimum Tax to protect middle-class taxpayers from rates imposed in the 1960s designed to bite super-rich families who paid no federal income tax. All these “temporary” tax policies are now, from Norquist and ATR’s perspective, permanent. Therefore, allowing them to expire constitutes a tax increase and a violation of the pledge—which, by the way, 234 of 240 House Republicans and 40 of 47 Senate Republicans have signed.
The Post's editorial set in motion rampant Hill speculation, especially among Democrats, that Republicans had been given dispensation from Norquist’s anti-tax increase orthodoxy. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said, “I think Mr. Norquist has made a very important statement that I hope they [Republicans] each take into consideration. 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.”
But Boehner wasted no time in slamming a door Norquist unintentionally opened.
“I’ll let you and the other pundits decide what it means,” Boehner said. “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.”
Top House GOP aides said the kerfuffle made no dent in negotiations with the White House or attempts to pass a deficit-reduction package linked to a debt-ceiling increase. House GOP aversion to tax increases—shared by Senate GOP leaders—is dictating negotiating strategies and bottom lines, not Norquist’s pledge, he agreed.
“The pledge is not to me. The pledge is to the voters of a given district or state. If a politician breaks the pledge do you honestly believe they will go home and say ‘Don’t be mad; Grover said it was OK?’ ”
This article appears in the July 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.