Jonathan Chait

Norquist vs. Republican Apostates

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This Washington Post story about bipartisan efforts to craft a deficit deal reports on a pretty important political drama, but it's obscured by a lot of cant and posturing:

The effort faces hurdles, including a wary White House and a Republican House majority that includes a large contingent of ardent conservatives.

The initiative has also attracted fierce critics, including Grover Norquist, a Republican anti-tax strategist who publicly accused Chambliss, Coburn and Crapo of abandoning their pledge not to raise taxes by lending support to the notion that the government could increase total tax revenue by closing loopholes and lowering income tax rates.

The three just as publicly dismissed the charge.

"None of us have ever voted for a tax increase, and I don't intend to," Chambliss said Monday. But the tax system is "way out of kilter," producing $1.1 trillion in revenue in 2009 while giving away $1.6 trillion in deductions and other breaks, he added. "We can do it in a fair and reasonable way and . . . actually lower rates and at the same time raise revenues."

The situation here is that some Republicans and democrats want to cut a deal to reduce spending and increase revenue. A deal like that would violate basic Republican dogma, which holds that tax increases of any form are totally unacceptable under any circumstances, even if paired with large spending cuts. Now, this dogma flies in the face of Milton Friedman's observation that the size of government is defined by spending levels, not by tax levels. And it has also failed spectacularly, most notably during the Bush administration. But it is party dogma.

Norquist is a key enforcer of this dogma, in part through his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which has the signatures of 237 members of the House plus 41 Senators. Chambliss, Coburn and Crapo all argue that they wouldn't be violating the pledge if they signed a deal that lowers rates and closes loopholes while increasing revenue. The story is written in such a way as to give them the last word and leave the reader believing they're correct. In fact, they're not. The pledge explicitly rules out any promise to raise revenue through loophole-closing. Signatories promise to "oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates." Norquist doesn't care about what most economists would define as good tax policy. He cares about keeping revenue low, especially revenue paid for by upper-income taxpayers.

The fact that even some Republicans are contemplating an open violation of what has been unchallenged party dogma for 20 years is pretty interesting.

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