Why the Norquist pledge may not even apply to the ‘fiscal cliff’

November 28, 2012

Much of the news coverage of the so-called "fiscal cliff" in recent days has focused on whether Republicans are willing to violate their Grover Norquist-sponsored pledge not to vote to raise taxes.

But what if the the Norquist pledge doesn't even apply to the current situation?

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) doesn't think it does. And Norquist and his group -- Americans for Tax Reform -- aren't saying that Cole is wrong.

Cole's basic premise is that, because the Bush tax cuts are expiring, Republicans can vote to renew the tax cuts on income below $250,000 and still not technically be voting for a tax increase on income above $250,000. Those tax cuts would merely be allowed to expire for the time being.

"I don’t see that as a violation of my pledge,” Cole said in urging his party to temporarily agree to President Obama's deal on taxes. Cole said Republicans should push for the other tax cuts after the "fiscal cliff" is averted.

And in fact, Cole's theory has been espoused by Norquist himself.

In a 2011 interview with The Washington Post editorial board, Norquist appeared to suggest that not renewing tax cuts doesn't constitute a violation of the pledge.

Here's how it was written, from July 2011:

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.

When the news blew up, Norquist said he was misinterpreted. Norquist and ATR clarified that allowing some of the Bush tax cuts expire would be a tax increase — though they didn't directly say that it would violate the pledge.

And in the editorial board interview, Norquist appeared to repeat his assertion that letting tax cuts expire doesn't violate the pledge

Here's the transcript, from Ruth Marcus (with audio):

Marcus:  So you’re saying that if candidate Romney were to come out tomorrow and say … here’s the deal … in order to get our country on a sustainable fiscal path we are going to have to let all the Bush tax cuts lapse and people like me call you up and toss you what we think is going to be a softball and say, “Grover, would you like to denounce him for violating the pledge?”

Norquist: I would denounce him as a tax increaser and a bad guy.  It would not technically violate the pledge.

That seems pretty unequivocal.

Even as late as Tuesday morning, Norquist wouldn't say whether Cole's idea would violate the pledge. At a breakfast sponsored by Politico, he called Cole's idea "an interesting tactic" and reportedly didn't rule it out as a viable option.

Also Tuesday, Americans for Tax Reform spokesman John Kartch deflected when asked for a response to a specific question about Cole's idea.

Here's the exchange, via e-mail:

Me: Tom Cole is now making the argument that not renewing a tax cut doens't (sic) constitute a tax increase. Your response?

Kartch: Not going to wander into a hypothetical. Show me something written down.

Me: I mean, its (sic) a pretty straight question IMO. Is not voting to renew a tax cut violating the pledge?

Kartch: We are encouraging transparency, with all fiscal cliff talks on CSPAN and the final legislative product posted online for 7 days before a vote is taken so all Americans can see for themselves the tax and spending implications.

So at least at this point, it appears that Norquist and his group have said that letting the Bush tax cuts expire would constitute a tax increase, but since the members technically aren't voting to raise taxes, it wouldn't violate the pledge.

If that changes, we'll let you know.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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