U.S. Debt Crisis Exposes Oz Behind Tax Pledge: Margaret Carlson

Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has quit the charade that we can simply cut our way out of the national debt. Having committed the Capitol offense of honesty, Coburn -- one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress -- must be punished, of course. And that’s where Grover Norquist comes in.

Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, has made it his life’s work to pressure Republican politicians into signing a pledge that they will never, ever raise taxes. He has famously said his mission is to shrink government to a “size where we can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” His ultimate aim is to prevent the “Holocaust” -- his word -- that would engulf America’s persecuted wealthy if their taxes were raised.

Virtually every Republican signs Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Coburn signed it too, before he deviated from Republican orthodoxy and joined the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six, which is seeking to develop a compromise plan to reduce the deficit. By working with Democrats, and seeking to solve the problem rather than use it as another rationale to cut taxes, Coburn is now a pariah off “by his lonesome,” Norquist says.

A plain-spoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Coburn honored a pledge to leave his House seat after six years. He won re- election in 2010 with 71 percent of the vote. He’s known for placing holds on legislation he opposes and for speaking his mind on tough issues. As a housemate of former Republican Senator John Ensign in a Capitol Hill home devoted to Christian fellowship, Coburn tried to get Ensign to break off an affair with his best friend’s wife and later called out Ensign for poor decision-making and judgment “impaired by arrogance.”

Isolation Battle

While Norquist works to isolate Coburn from the Republican caucus, lest the truth contagion spread, the Oklahoman is looking to do the same to Norquist.

Coburn is supporting an end to ethanol subsidies: $6 billion in annual tax expenditures that benefit agribusiness, not the public. The savings would go to pay down the debt. To Norquist, this represents a violation of the sacred anti-tax pledge. In Norquist’s church, if revoking a tax loophole, no matter how indefensible, causes someone’s taxes to rise, then it must be opposed. And if you do close one loophole, you must open another of equal or greater value -- even if it’s a deduction for Gulfstream jets.

His position makes responsible public policy impossible -- which is what Coburn is eager to expose.

Democrats’ Tricks

What really burns Norquist is that a Republican stalwart such as Coburn would fall for the promises of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate’s Gang of Six. Democrats Dick Durbin, Mark Warner and Kent Conrad, says Norquist, have “never voted to cut spending in the history of their lives.” Coburn, he says, is foolish to believe that his Democratic colleagues are negotiating spending cuts in good faith.

“The question is: does Coburn realize he’s being played by the president’s best friend in the Senate, Dick Durbin?” Norquist shouts.

Coburn defines the debt crisis as a “disease” that career politicians are afraid to treat. He’s not advocating legislated tax increases. He’s arguing for deep spending cuts along with tax reform that raises revenue by ending corporate welfare for well-connected interests. In a Senate speech on April 5, he said, “My taxes are going to go up. Sorry, they are going to go up.” Appearing on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” days later, Coburn went beyond ethanol subsidies and put $700 billion in annual tax expenditures on the table.

All of this violates Norquist’s faith, which has dominated Republican politics for decades. (He actually accuses Coburn of “impure thoughts.”) Although Coburn has yet to cast a vote to raise revenue, Norquist insists the senator is guilty of “lying to the voters of Oklahoma.” It’s a harsh thing to say about a politician’s relationship to his constituents. Coming from Norquist though, Coburn just might take it as a compliment.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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