In a step that may help crack open the partisan impasse on climate change, Grover Norquist, the influential lobbyist who has bound hundreds of Republicans to a pledge never to raise taxes, told National Journal that a proposed “carbon tax swap”—taxing carbon pollution in exchange for cutting the income tax—would not violate his pledge.
Norquist’s assessment matters a lot, and could help pave the way for at least a handful of Republicans to support the policy. Over the past six months, a growing number of conservative voices, including former Republican officials and renowned economists, have amped up pressure on their party to finally address climate change.
One group, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative headed by former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., has been working for months to persuade the GOP to take up a carbon-tax swap as part of a broad tax-reform package next year. The idea is to create a market signal to drive consumers away from fossil fuels by taxing the carbon pollution caused by burning coal, oil, and natural gas.
The problem is that creating a new “energy tax” would be viewed by some as political suicide. And Republicans who have signed Norquist’s pledge would be barred from supporting it.
That’s where the “swap” side of the policy comes in: The new carbon tax would be paired with a cut in the income tax—something Republicans have long sought. The idea essentially would be to cut the tax on income and move it over to carbon pollution—keeping the proposal revenue-neutral.
“It’s possible you could structure something that wasn’t an increase and didn’t violate the pledge,” Norquist told National Journal.
But Norquist made clear he himself doesn’t like the policy. “It would infuriate taxpayers,” he said. He also opined that politically, it’s beyond a long shot. While supporters might now be talking about how to structure the tax swap in such a way that it could win political support, “It’s a conversation about what color unicorn you’d like,” Norquist said.
“If the Democrats thought it was a good idea and the country wouldn’t hate them for it they would have done it in 2009,” when their party held majorities in both chambers of Congress, he said.
Still, if the tax swap could indeed be structured in such a way that it wouldn’t violate Norquist’s pledge, it could remove at least one political obstacle for some Republicans.
“We hear frequently, constantly from Republican lawmakers who say, we see climate change as a huge problem and we want to talk about ways to do this, but for now they’re afraid to talk about it, because of the political repercussions,” said Rob Sisson, president of the group ConservAmerica, formerly Republicans for Environmental Protection.
Conversation about a carbon tax is increasing in Washington. In September, the Congressional Budget Office released a report concluding that a carbon tax on its own—not paired with a tax cut elsewhere—could reduce the federal deficit by 10 percent to 50 percent.
The day after the presidential election, the global bank HSBC put out a research note identifying a carbon tax as a policy that could emerge in President Obama’s second term.
On Tuesday, the Brookings Institution hosts a daylong conference on the economics of a carbon tax, featuring speakers from CBO, the Treasury Department, and the International Monetary Fund.