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Out from under the anti-tax pledge

By Editorial,

WITH A HANDFUL of exceptions, every Republican member of Congress has signed a pledge against increasing taxes. 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.

Of course, letting the tax cuts expire is decidedly not Mr. Norquist’s preference. Indeed, as a matter of policy, he is passionately opposed to a single dime in new tax revenue. But the fact that Mr. Norquist interprets his own pledge to permit such conduct suggests that Republican lawmakers who have been browbeaten into abjuring any tax increase, at any time, for any reason, may not be as boxed in as they believe. The official Republican line has been that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, even for those earning more than $250,000, would be a job-killing tax increase. The fact that the godfather of the pledge does not interpret the lapse as an increase is significant.

Mr. Norquist’s comments come at a moment of remarkable and welcome fluidity in what had seemed to be a solid wall of Republican opposition to raising any tax revenue at any time for any reason. The surprising reemergence and expansion of the Senate Gang of Six this week was accompanied by a flurry of statements from Republican senators endorsing a proposal that included $1 trillion in new tax revenue. “This is a serious, bipartisan proposal that will help stop Washington from spending money that we don’t have, and I support it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the GOP conference chair. “A fair compromise,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). There may not be time to translate the gang plan into law as the debt ceiling looms, but these reactions suggest that future negotiations could be conducted from a base line of reality.

Too often in recent years, the tax debate has resembled a one-way ratchet: Taxes can go down but never back up, except if a booming economy produces additional revenue. It is important to remember that the Bush tax cuts were passed at a moment when, hard as it may be to believe, enormous surpluses were in sight and a big worry among economic poobahs was whether the debt was being paid off too quickly. There is no policy basis for insisting that these tax rates are graven in stone and immune to change given the changed circumstances. And the Norquist pledge, it turns out, is not a suicide pact preventing such a sober reassessment.

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Listen to an audio excerpt from Norquist’s discussion with the Post editorial board.

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