Friday, May 20, 2011

Writhing out of Norquist's embrace, Part IV

You have to respect a conservative Republican who tells his colleagues that the only way they're going to get a deficit reduction deal is to raise tax revenue, no matter what contortions he has to twist himself into to cover himself.

Tom Coburn has separated himself from current GOP orthodoxy, and specifically from a fundamentalist interpretation of Grover Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge, by degrees.  Now, even as he withdraws (temporarily, he implies) from the Gang of Six purporting to negotiate a tax reform/deficit reduction deal, he's completed the clarification. And incidentally, effectively told Norquist to go fuck himself.

Coburn, along with Saxby Chambliss (and presumably the less vocal Mike Crapo, the third Republican in the Gang of Six) has been operating on the premise that he can ultimately sell the GOP on raising tax revenue by exploiting a semantic/conceptual ambiguity: if tax reform lowers marginal rates while closing or reducing targeted tax breaks, resulting in a net increase in Federal revenue, does such reform constitute "raising taxes"?  Is zeroing out, say, an ethanol subsidy, or a tuition tax credit for a family earning over $100,000 per year a "tax hike" or a spending cut?

The Bowles-Simpson plan, like virtually every other deficit reduction plan circulated, proposed such a tradeoff: tax code simplification plus reduced marginal rates. The Bowles-Simpson tax proposal purports to raise $1 trillion in new revenue over 9 years -- too little by progressive standards, but not nothing.  When word first emerged that the Gang of Six was using Bowles-Simpson as a baseline, Norquist loudly proclaimed that any Republican signing on to such heresy would be in violation of Americans for Tax Reform's "no new taxes" pledge, which over 95% of Republicans in Congress have signed. Coburn, Chambliss and Crapo responded with a carefully worded letter that asserted, "Our pledge is to protect taxpayers, not special interests." The catch, as I noted at the time: everyone who avails herself of a tax deduction or credit -- that is, virtually every American -- is a "special interest" of some sort (as well as a taxpayer).

Chambliss and Coburn have become more explicit by degrees in affirming that there can be no deficit reduction deal without tax reform that yields a net increase in revenues.  Considering the political capital they've expended, it's interesting that Coburn would further "highlight the contradictions" even as he withdraws from the Gang of Six. But that is what he's done, in an interview with ABC's Jonathan Carl:
"The fact is we're at the lowest tax rate this country's been in a hundred years," Coburn said in an interview on ABC's Subway Series with Jonathan Karl. "And nobody believes that we're going to get a bipartisan agreement without some way to increase revenue for the federal government. We're also at the lowest level in a long time in terms of revenues coming in."

Increasing tax revenues, Coburn said, does not mean increasing tax rates. Higher revenues could be accomplished by closing tax loopholes for individuals and/or corporations.

"Do I want tax rates to rise? Absolutely not. Will I fight that? Yeah," Coburn said. "Would I agree to a plan that would create great economy that would markedly increase revenues to the federal government? You bet. And that's what I want to do."
Meanwhile, he's done placating Norquist, who's grown ever more shrill as Chambliss and Coburn try to shake him:

Grover Norquist, the President of Americans for Tax Reform, recently accused Coburn of "lying his way into Congress" because of his willingness to consider measures that would increase federal tax revenue.

"I don't care what he says," Coburn said of Norquist. "He's like a fly on the wall. If you're scared of Grover Norquist you have no business being up here." 
(In the context of this fight, at least one Republican operative has brought up Norquist's association with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  As Norquist throws "liar" charges around, will more such allusions crop up?)

Coburn is covering his heresy by ostensibly upping the ante on spending cuts -- outbidding the radical Paul Ryan's proposed $6 trillion in cuts over ten years with a menu of $9 trillion.  But the key word here, is suspect (okay, it's my word, but let's say the key concept) is menu:

"What I'm going to do, and what my staff is doing now, is really a fun exercise, we're going to show everybody where you can cut 9 trillion dollars over the next 10 years," Coburn said. "I'm just going to say here, American people, if you want to solve the problem, pick from this group of things. Here's a way to do it. And some of it's painful. Everybody's going to have to have a little pain but if we want opportunity and a prosperous future, we have to take a little discomfort now to get there."
Got that? Pick from. Perhaps, the thinking or at least the presentation seems to go, that little exercise will clear an impasse:
Coburn says he left the Gang of Six because he reached an impasse with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) about the need for specific cuts to Medicare and other popular entitled programs and needed "a good cooling off period."

"We had a conversation, very frank and where I needed him to go, he couldn't and where I wanted to go, he couldn't so what you need to do is back off and see if you can do something different," Coburn said.

The Gang of Six remains a quixotic exercise, if not Kabuki Theater. Getting the current GOP to sign off on significant tax increases -- even if you cast them as spending cuts -- seems an impossible dream, at least until the Bush cuts are due to sunset. But Coburn deserves credit for taking the first swings (along with Chambliss) at the castle gate.

Related posts:
Forget Ryan - watch Coburn and Chambliss
Writhing out of Norquist's embrace, Part III
Chambliss Seizes the freedom to acknowledge that 2+2=4
Chambliss, Coburn, Crapo to Norquist: Kowtow or brush-off?

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