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July 16, 2012 1:34 PM Tom Coburn vs. Grover Norquist

By Danny Vinik

Grover Norquist is losing power. The conservative lobbyist and founder of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) has held great sway within the Republican party since he founded ATR in 1985 for his anti-tax, small government mindset. In particular, his mission has always been to never raise taxes. He created a pledge, called the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” that 238 Representatives and 41 Senators have signed.

The pledge says:

I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the (____district of the) state of ______ and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Just six House Republicans and seven Republican Senators have not signed it. For years, Norquist’s pledge has held such power in Republican minds that few would ever dare break it. But those times are over as more more and moremore Republicans have begun defying Norquist and his beloved pledge.

Today, Republican Senator Tom Coburn came out with an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Norquist’s Phantom Army” where he writes, “[R]ather than forcing Republicans to bow to him, Mr. Norquist is the one who is increasingly isolated politically.”

In June, Coburn proposed ending tax subsidies for the ethanol industry. The pledge considers that proposal a tax hike unless it is offset by an equal reduction in tax rates. But Coburn refused and as he points out in his op-ed, 35 of the 41 Senators who have signed the pledge voted for the amendment, even though it broke the pledge.

“Those 35 Republican pledge-violators are hardly soft on taxes,” Coburn writes. “Rather, they understand that the tax code is riddled with special-interest provisions that are merely spending by another name.”

Coburn calls Norquist “the boogeyman” and repeatedly attacks him for refusing to even consider a grand bargain. The junior senator concludes the piece saying, “The majority of Democrats and Republicans understand the severity of our economic challenges. They know they have to put everything on the table and make hard choices. Legislators who would rather foster political boogeymen only delay those critical reforms.”

He’s right. At the beginning of next year, the Bush tax cuts and payroll tax cuts both expire while the spending cuts that the failed super committee triggered take effect and the U.S. will likely hit the debt ceiling. That will require a lot of hard decisions and those decisions will involve whether or not to raise taxes. In 2009, Americans paid the lowest federal taxes in 30 years. Tax revenues were just 15.1 percent of GDP in 2011, much lower than the historical average of 18.1 percent. The fact of the matter is Americans are not paying enough in taxes and raising taxes needs to at least be part of the discussion.

In November of last year, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in his column, “The long-run budget outlook has darkened, which means that some hard choices must be made. Why should those choices only involve spending cuts?” Here Krugman and Coburn agree: it’s time to consider tax increases. But Norquist’s pledge does not allow that and it has left Congress and the country deadlocked.

A 2005 Washington Monthly article by Daniel Franklin and A.G. Newmyer III titled, “Is Grover Over?” emphasized Norquist’s waning power in the states. The piece concluded by noting that Norquist still had much sway in Washington:

Grover is a long way from being politically neutered, to be sure. But it is in the nation’s capital, rather than the states, that he continues to find his soulmates… But weep not for Norquist and Daniels. They’ll always have Washington.

With federal taxes at such a low level and the budget deficit continuing to grow, Norquist may find that he has fewer allies in D.C. than he thought.

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Danny Vinik is an intern at the Washington Monthly.