The vote President Barack Obama wants this month to extend middle-class tax cuts may violate Republican lawmakers’ pledge against tax increases, depending on whether it’s a “throwaway vote” or part of a plan to raise rates for top earners, said Grover Norquist, author of the pledge.
Obama is urging Congress to extend tax cuts for individuals’ income up to $200,000 a year and married couples’ income up to $250,000, separating those provisions from the rest of tax cuts that expire Dec. 31. Some Republicans, including Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine and Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, say Republicans should allow that vote and work in 2013 to reduce top tax rates.
Such a vote wouldn’t appear to violate the pledge, which calls on lawmakers to reject rate increases and oppose limiting tax breaks without matching rate cuts, because it would only extend tax cuts. The arbiters will be voters, Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said at a Bloomberg Government event yesterday.
“It’s not only what happens now,” he said. “It’s what it smells like two years from now.”
Adding that “odd hypotheticals” can arise, Norquist said voters can judge whether lawmakers go back on their word not to raise taxes.
“If you look at them in the eye and say this wasn’t a tax increase, and they go, yes it was, then a letter from me saying it’s OK wouldn’t do you any good,” he said.
For more than 20 years, Norquist and his pledge have been a force in Republican politics, shaping the party’s no-tax brand and backed in part by the threat of primary-election challenges.
The political and legislative climate surrounding the scheduled expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts presents an unusual situation for Norquist and a potential complication of the Republicans’ unified stance on taxes. Obama’s re-election on a platform that called for tax increases for high earners has shifted the politics of taxation as more Republicans express openness to trading tax increases for spending cuts.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has offered to raise $800 billion in revenue over 10 years through an overhaul of the tax code in exchange for spending cuts. That offer, which doesn’t say where the revenue would come from, would appear to violate the no-tax pledge.
Obama, a Democrat, is calling for an immediate extension of the tax cuts. Votes to raise taxes would come later under his $1.6 trillion plan. Norquist told the Washington Post in 2011 that letting tax cuts expire wouldn’t violate the pledge.
He didn’t answer directly when asked whether senators who voted July 25 to extend the tax cuts for 98 percent of households were voting to raise taxes.
“Well, because it wasn’t going anywhere on the day that you took it, I think it’s tough to explain to the American people that they should care one way or the other,” he said. “I mean, some votes aren’t going anywhere, but, you know, the House votes one thing and the Senate votes one thing, and the bill’s not going anywhere.”
On Boehner’s plan, Norquist said yesterday that the text of the speaker’s Dec. 3 offer to Obama doesn’t specifically say how the revenue would be tallied. Republican aides have said they would use scoring rules that don’t allow assumed economic growth, which means the Boehner plan would be considered a tax increase.
“Because we are so far from any agreement, we’ll see how it plays out,” Norquist said.
Norquist dismissed the idea that some Republican lawmakers who signed the pledge, including Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are abandoning their anti-tax positions.
Those senators, he said, have expressed willingness to exchange tax increases for significant spending cuts, cuts so big and unpalatable to Democrats that Norquist calls them “unicorns.”
“If they were the kind of thing that Obama would go, ’Yes,’ you go, hey wait,” he said. “That said, there is a cost to having conversations about how much you pay for unicorns because the New York Times takes the first five words of what you said, snips off the other bit, and announces Senator So-and-So is for tax increases.”