No-Tax Pledge Puts Lawmakers in Untenable Position
Currently in the U.S. Congress, almost 95 percent of all Republicans - and a handful of Democrats - have taken a pledge, some even before being sworn into office.
What distinguishes this pledge is the fact that it is to a lobbying organization known as Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), an organization presided over by Grover Norquist, author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge (TPPP).
It's no surprise that there is stiff and ongoing resistance to raising revenues. In our own state, Congressman Howard Coble and Sen. Richard Burr have both signed this pledge, which says they will "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business" and "oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."
Inherent in the TPPP is the tacit assumption that there is no such thing as a beneficial piece of fiscal legislation if it involves raising taxes directly or indirectly; and that all such actions are categorically harmful to the public interest.
Granted few people or businesses wish to pay more taxes, but those put in place by the George H.W. Bush and W.J. Clinton administrations may well have contributed to the balanced budget we enjoyed soon thereafter.
The situation today is, of course, much more problematic and acute because of: (1) the size of the national debt; (2) the looming Aug. 2 deadline for extension of the federal debt ceiling; and (3) the House and Senate whips [who whip up party votes], Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), having "walked out" of negotiations.
Nevertheless, Sen. Thomas "Tom" Coburn (R-Okla.) - himself a signer of the TPPP - has taken the lead in renouncing his TPPP that calls for him NOT to eliminate a subsidy of 45 cents per gallon paid to ethanol blenders, who are further protected by a tariff upon ethanol imports. Net cost to the taxpayer: $5 billion annually.
Ordinarily, Republicans would oppose fettering of free markets by price supports, but not now, with the intense opposition to raising revenue. Though the measure did not pass, Coburn and colleagues truly defied GOP leadership, and he especially should be commended for the courage and leadership it took to do so.
Meanwhile, as Coburn was defecting, other TPPP-signers appear to be marching in lockstep formation to the cadence of Norquist, whose most famous quote is, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
Coburn may not be alone in his dilemma as a TPPP-signer; others may feel the same conflict between their TPPP and part of their oaths of office, "I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office." How the debt-ceiling votes shape up - or not - will be some indication of who is beholden to Norquist's ATR and who may be more beholden to their oath of office.
Democrats have certainly made their share of errors - e.g., only five voted with Coburn to end the ethanol subsidy. However, I am simply unaware of any comparable pledge made by most Democrats to any lobbying organization. Indeed, what the ATR and the TPPP may actually represent is a form of political patronage disguised as taxpayer protection, with Norquist's ATR being the benefactor-patron and the signers of the TPPP being the commissioned beneficiaries.
The ATR's immediate goal appears to be a de facto effort to restrict Congress' constitutional taxing authority. However, that may merely be a means to the end of wiping out several Cabinet-level departments, rending the social safety net and /or eviscerating entitlement programs.
The TPPP seems extreme - without provisions for any exceptions or an escape clause. In any event, if pledge-signers continue their lockstep march toward blocking any revenue increases, existing tensions may rise as each side attempts to hold the other accountable for the impasse.
Is there a solution to this recurring debacle of "raw politics"? It's going to take courage and negotiations in good faith, a process that the TPPP seems to be complicating. Coburn and his colleagues should be respected for the example they have set, and the humility it may have taken to acknowledge a mistake in signing the TPPP. Others should do likewise.
Edward N. Squire Jr. lives in Seven Lakes.
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