How Grover Norquist’s Anti-Tax Pledge Is Broken

Norquist’s proposition is so sweeping that it cannot last in its current form.

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My colleague Massimo Calabresi has written that anti-tax guru Grover Norquist’s pledge will survive, primarily because “it’s a winning issue with voters.” Indeed, the simplicity of the pledge is its brilliance; you may not believe a politician when he or she says, “I will not raise taxes,” but you will if the statement is in writing. Alas, there are no simple solutions to the fiscal cliff and it is because Norquist’s proposition is so sweeping, it cannot last in its current form.

The American for Tax Reform pledge has two requirements:

ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

The fiscal cliff debate seems to be on Norquist’s turf: Republicans have resisted any increase on the marginal income tax rates even though some, like Senator Bob Corker, have proposed capping itemized deductions as a way of raising revenue. Under the pledge, Republicans would be obliged to cut an equal amount from the federal government’s budget to fulfill the second half of the pledge (in Corker’s case, $750 billion), but presumably that wouldn’t be a problem for the party of small government. What is the issue is popular trend.

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, 60% of Americans support raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 a year, while 44% support capping deductions. A July Pew poll reported that 26% of Americans believe the rich pay their fair share in taxes.

The November 6 election didn’t change control of the Senate or House, or remove President Obama, but it did reveal a leftward shift on taxes. President Obama ran on raising taxes on the wealthy, former Governor Mitt Romney offered to cap deductions, and the President won. Democrats gained at least seven seats in the House, and two in the Senate.

By Norquist’s account, the pledge will apply to 19 fewer Representatives and two less Senators when the next Congress is sworn in. Some that have signed it have voiced support for breaking it. Rep. King told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “The world has changed, and the economic situation is different.” Sen. Corker agreed that he was “not obligated on the pledge,” and Sen. Chambliss told Georgia WMAZ, “I care a lot more about my country- I care a lot more about it than I do about Grover Norquist.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator Lindsey Graham have also voiced opposition.

While Norquist has countered that these are the same politicians that threatened to break the pledge two years ago, higher stakes and an election have changed the political climate. As Politico reports today, “Republicans publicly say they are opposed to rate hikes — but privately they know they are going up, if not all the way to the Clinton-era 39.6 percent, then darn close.” Only by compromising on tax rates can Congress reach the expected $1.2 trillion in new revenues (Speaker Boehner has advocated for $800 billion and President Obama $1.6 trillion), and there is no compromise on income rates in Norquist’s pledge.

A Pew Center Research poll taken just after the election found that 53% of Americans would blame Republicans if an agreement is not reached, compared to 29% who said the fault would lie more with Obama. In an interview with Politico’s Mike Allen, Norquist said he would “change the playing field” by putting the negotiations on C-SPAN (Obama pledged the same thing on health care reform in the 2008 campaign and look how that turned out). He thinks this would show that it is Democrats who are blocking passage, through their opposition to cutting entitlements.

It some ways the pledge has already been cracked. In 2011, a bill eliminating $6 billion in tax subsidies for ethanol producers received the support of 33 Republican Senators without a similar $6 billion cut. While small, the bill showed that a conservative Senator like Tom Coburn was able to build support against Norquist’s pledge. A major bill enacting up to $4 trillion in cuts and tax increases would be a much bigger indicator of the pledge’s chances of survival.

There have been points where the pledge seemed flexible enough to survive. Last year, the Washington Post asked Norquist if letting the Bush tax cuts expire would violate the pledge. “Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase,” Norquist replied. “We wouldn’t hold it that way.”

But the next day, his group clarified, “It is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to trade temporary tax reductions for permanent tax hikes.”

The pledge’s simple language on tax rates will be its undoing. Any time there seems to be a crack in its armor, Americans for Tax Reform must prove that the pledge still requires no new increase in income tax rates, and a revenue neutral approach to cuts and taxes. Without such an ironclad statement, politicians may just as well say, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

While popular support for the pledge falters, the Republican Party must learn how to exist without it. “The Republican Party has built a brand as the party that won’t raise your taxes,” says Norquist. “The pledge plays an important role in making that easier to do because the pledge doesn’t change over time, it doesn’t change across state lines.” The pledge and the Republican Party are linked by ink, a tattoo the Republican Party may one day soon regret.