The Washington Post

Why the Norquist tax pledge furor matters

Liberals are claiming that Grover Norquist has sent a signal to Republican lawmakers: Even he — the ultimate anti-tax crusader — thinks that their refusal to compromise on tax policy in debt negotiations is bad for the GOP and the country. In fact, what the president of Americans for Tax Reform said this week about his famous no-tax-hikes pledge reveals something else: That limiting the policy options lawmakers have is often unwise, whether it be through an aggressive balanced budget amendment or pledges that pressure groups press lawmakers to sign during campaign season.

In case you missed it, Norquist told Ruth Marcus , myself and other Post editors and reporters that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would not violate the pledge he asks politicians to sign, which commits them to not raising any taxes.

Does that commitment mean policymakers can’t allow temporary tax cuts to expire? If so, Congress wouldn’t be able to, say, lower payroll taxes during an economic downturn unless it was prepared to keep them at that lower rate forever. That’s a large tool — one that has mitigated America’s current economic pain — Congress couldn’t use.

Good thing, then, that Norquist told us the pledge doesn’t take temporary tax cuts out of Congress’s toolbox. So, by implication, permitting the set-to-expire Bush tax cuts to sunset would be allowed. Norquist agreed.

But the pledge still forbids a range of other smart policies that would cost Americans a lot less than letting the Bush tax cuts lapse — such as raising revenue by removing special tax breaks, loopholes and other distortions and inefficiencies from the tax code.

Norquist wasn’t making some major announcement. He was simply explaining what signing this pledge, which is practically an entry requirement for the House GOP caucus, means. In so doing, he revealed how arbitrary and absurd it really is. The real lesson: Lawmakers should worry more about getting their policy right than about whether or not they are running afoul of some political gimmick.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.


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