The Ghost of Norquist Past
This week, Grover Norquist has been all over the place attacking the idea that President Obama would use his mandate to stand firm on the highly-popular idea of letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for those earning over $250,000 a year. When asked what his agenda for the fiscal showdown was, Norquist told The Washington Post, “You want to stop any tax increases, so continue any tax cuts that lapse.”
In other words, allowing a tax cut to lapse equals a tax increase, eh? Not so fast says … Grover Norquist.
In a July 2011 meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, Norquist said, “Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase.”
Now, for those of you who may not know, Grover Norquist is not, as his name might suggest, a character on Sesame Street. Norquist is the bizarrely powerful head of Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative anti-government advocacy group that pressures political candidates to sign absolutist pledges against raising taxes. Norquist holds immense sway over the Republican Party when it comes to matters of tax policy, so his admission that letting a tax cut expire is not the same as raising taxes would seem to give plenty of room to maneuver to Republicans in Congress. And those Republicans, with an electoral shellacking in the recent past and increasing political and demographic unpopularity looming, need all the room to maneuver that they can get.
So according to Norquist, if Republicans voted against extending the Bush-era tax breaks for the rich, would that be a violation of his extremist anti-tax pledge? No. “We wouldn’t hold it that way,” said Norquist in July 2011.
In November 2011, when President Obama was trying to extend the payroll tax cut, Norquist repeated his statement that allowing the tax cut to lapse would not amount to a tax increase. But he tried to walk back and parse his own previous statement, trying to draw a distinction between the payroll tax cuts for the middle class—which Norquist considers temporary—and the Bush-era tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires which, er, were also passed as temporary measures (hence the reason they expire at the end of the year). And yet, Norquist insists the Bush tax cuts weren’t intended to be temporary, but were only made temporary for political reasons. The Bush tax cuts were meant to be permanent, so Norquist's point about letting them lapse doesn’t apply. Clearly Grover missed the episode of Sesame Street where Big Bird explains to Elmo the concept of tortured logic.
Or, we can understand Norquist’s logic by looking at the constituencies such tax cuts or extensions thereof would help. Letting the payroll tax cut expire for middle class Americans? Not a tax increase, says Norquist. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire for millionaires and billionaires? Definitely a tax increase, Norquist was saying by late 2011 and is insisting now. Further confirmation that Norquist’s anti-tax orthodoxy is a fig leaf for advancing the interests of the rich? This September, Norquist said that a large carbon tax—which would disproportionately be born by poor and working class people in their home heating oil bills—would not violate his pledge.
According to exit polls in the election, 60 percent of Americans want to increase the share of taxes paid by those making over $250,000 per year. I’m guessing Grover Norquist would side with the minority on that question. But if the extremist anti-tax ideologue himself can find the wiggle room to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire and not be considered a tax increase, than Republicans in Congress have no excuse for doing what is both economically smart and politically strategic. In fact, perhaps it’s time for Republicans to give up their faith in the mercurial and manipulative Norquist and start believing in something more realistic. Like Snuffleupagus.
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