As the game of chicken over the “fiscal cliff” continues, anti-tax champion Grover Norquist waits in the background, but not far in the background, as he publicly argues that the reelection of Pres. Obama was not a mandate for raising taxes, including especially marginal income tax rates and, of course, not even on the wealthiest Americans.
Norquist, who has been declared one of the five key players in the shaping of the post-Goldwater Republican Party, is the founder and leader of “Americans for Tax Reform.” ATR advocates for lower tax rates, backed by the old “supply side” argument that cutting taxes actually produces more revenue because it stimulates economic growth.
Americans for Tax Reform sponsors what it calls the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” by which signatories promise to:
“ Oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and …oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”
It should be noted that Norquist always says that this is not a pledge that candidates make to him, but a pledge they make to their own constituents, and the consequences of breaking the pledge are severe.
The pledge has been very influential in making opposition to tax increases fundamental to the Republican agenda. During the rise of Norquist, almost all Republican candidates for the presidency or for Congress signed the pledge and it was understood that refusal to sign often meant defeat in a Republican primary. Back when there were 11 Republicans seeking the presidential nomination, 10 of them had taken the pledge (the exception was Jon Huntsman).
In the last Congress, 95 percent of all Republicans had signed. But this year, about a dozen newly elected House Republicans refused to take the pledge and some of the former signers who were reelected have disavowed their allegiance to the pledge. In the outgoing House, a majority of all members were pledge abiders. In the new House, the number of abiders has fallen below a majority, which is probably evidence that the grip of Norquistism is starting to loosen a bit.
President Obama and many Democrats are arguing that because Obama was reelected and explicitly called for a return to the old, higher, pre-Bush tax cut marginal rate on those with the highest incomes, Republicans should accept the will of the voters and agree to that.
Norquist is having none of that, of course. Yesterday, on ”CBS This Morning,” Norquist was pressed to acknowledge that Obama had a mandate to raise taxes on the highest income individuals and families. He replied:
“The president was committed — elected on the basis that he was not Romney and Romney was a poopyhead and you should vote against Romney, and he won by two points, but he didn’t make the case that we should have higher taxes and higher spending, he kind of sounded like the opposite.”
Yes, Norquist really did say “poopyhead.”
Now, if you contemplate Norquistism, it provides a clue to the post-election verbal gymnastics of House Speaker John Boehner. In his post-election statement on the looming fiscal cliff, Boehner, who usually doesn’t use a teleprompter, did so, and it might be because he had worked out a way of signaling flexibility and balance while still staying right with the inflexibility of the Norquist pledge. The first reaction in many quarters was that Boehner had said yes to a tax increase, but he really didn’t, he said yes to “new revenue” that comes “as the byproduct of a growing economy.” Parse this:
Boehner: “For purposes of forging a bipartisan agreement that begins to solve the problem, we’re willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions. What matters is where the increased revenue comes from, and what type of reform comes with it.
“Does the increased revenue come from government taking a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates? Or does it come as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code, with fewer loopholes, and lower rates for all?”
Boehner cleverly put his trial balloon in the form of a question, but he has since clarified that he is not agreeing to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, in fact, he is not agreeing to higher marginal rates on anyone. He is suggesting that he could go along with changes in tax credits and deductions that would be offset by lower rates, which is explicitly permitted by the Norquist pledge.
Personally, I assume that what Boehner and many of his fellow House Republicans are looking for is a way to do one of two things:
Abide by the Norquist pledge while appearing to be making painful concessions to contribute to deficit/debt reduction.
Accept higher taxes while appearing to be abiding by the Norquist pledge.