Grover Norquist Walks Road to Damascus, Then Walks Back

Getty Images

The best way to think about Grover Norquist’s influence in the Republican party is to think about Wotan in the Ring cycle. Wotan’s power is entirely reliant on contracts. Norquist’s power is reliant on the ATR pledge, which basically every Republican in Washington has signed, and which goes like this:

I, _______________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district of the state of__________, and to the American people that I will:

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.

In order to protect the pledge, Norquist evangelizes against any tax increases. No tax reform unless it’s revenue neutral, or pulls in less lucre for the state. This was why the Washington Post sent out alarms when Norquist told them this.

Would allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire as scheduled in 2012 violate this vow? We posed this question to Grover Norquist, its author and enforcer, and his answer was both surprising and encouraging: No.

In other words, 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. “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.

The story went up on Wednesday night. It was so antithetical to what Norquist has said that Democrats starting circulating it faster than an Allen West slam book. At his briefing this morning, Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked twice about what Norquist said, and said very clearly that, for him, restoring pre-Bush tax rates – something scheduled to happen at the end of 2012, because of a deal Boehner agreed to – would amount to a tax hike. And literally minutes later, ATR walked back the statement.

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. In addition, the failure to extend the AMT patch would increase taxes. 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. It is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to trade temporary tax reductions for permanent tax hikes.

The middle part of that is not quite true. The Gang of Six plan is fuzzy, but it calls for ending the AMT and lowering tax rates to a corporate tax rate of “between 23 and 29 percent” – down from 35 now – and marginal rates of 8-12, 14-22, and 23-29 percent. Vague, but if those numbers are actually hit, they would represent lower tax rates.

What happened here was that Norquist went further than the Republicans who’ve signed his pledge are willing to go. And he’s walked back so far as to rule out something that, while seeking more revenue (something that tax simplication can pull off), are low enough to fulfill the pledge.