The Washington Post

A straitjacket for true believers

Norquist, attempting to work his way out of the what-is-a-tax-increase pretzel he had gotten himself into with the Washington Post editorial board, discussed two forms of tax-hiking sins, omission and commission.

“If there were no vote in Congress and taxes rose automatically, then no politicians would have voted for higher taxes and no elected official would have violated his or her pledge,” he wrote.

“But that is different from supporting a plan by some Democrats that would end some or all of those lower tax rates, higher per-child tax credits and the A.M.T. [alternative minimum tax] patches…,” he added. “It is difficult to see how such a package would fail to violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

Actually, it wasn’t so difficult to see a few days earlier, when Norquist came to see us. Norquist was clear and consistent in saying that not only letting the Bush tax cuts expire by inaction wouldn’t violate the pledge, but also that you could maintain the cuts, collect revenue elsewhere and still not violate the pledge.

This came in the context of the then-emerging Gang of Six plan to lower rates, broaden the base—and collect $1 trillion more in tax revenue than would have been collected had the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year been allowed to expire.

As Norquist told me, “Your point of whether something’s technically a violation of the pledge versus whether you could get Republicans in the House or the Senate to vote for it—not continuing the Bush tax cuts is going to be viewed by all those guys as a tax increase. So I could write them a little note saying, ‘I wouldn’t mind’--and [they would think], ‘That would help me how in the next election?’”

Of course Norquist would mind. He doesn’t want to see the tax cuts expire, any of them, and he would view the Gang of Six plan, or the Simpson-Bowles plan, as a tax increase. But he told us they wouldn’t necessarily violate the pledge. And he had a reason for this principle, he told us: on a state level, where he also wields the pledge, he doesn’t want legislators to think they can let temporary tax increases become permanent.

What this episode underscores is the malleability of his supposedly simple pledge. “The pledge has no context,” Norquist said. “It’s right here: ‘I won’t raise taxes.’” But of course it does have a context—the baseline, which is green-eyeshade-speak for “compared to what.” And Norquist’s comparison is clear: “We go off the baseline.” In the baseline, the Bush tax cuts expire next year.

In other words: The pledge is a straitjacket only for lawmakers who want it to serve that function.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy.


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