Cracks in the anti-tax wall

WASHINGTON — Maybe the fever is breaking. Maybe the delirium is lifting. Maybe Republicans are finally asking themselves: What were we thinking when we put an absurdly unrealistic pledge to a Washington lobbyist ahead of our duty to the American people?

I said maybe. So far, the renunciations of Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” amount to a trickle, not a flood. But we’re seeing the first signs in years that on the question of taxation — one of the fundamental responsibilities of government — the GOP may be starting to recover its senses.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., was the first to shake off the cobwebs, announcing last week that he would no longer consider the no-taxes promise exacted by Norquist’s pressure group, Americans for Tax Reform, to be holy writ.

“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” Chambliss said. “If we do it [Norquist[‘]s] way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that. … I’m willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves.”

Welcome back to consciousness, Senator. The year is 2012, your party just got whupped in an election, we’re facing a “fiscal cliff” and your party’s view — that we should starve the federal government of needed revenue — will only hurt your constituents, not help them.

Also showing signs of life are Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said Sunday that he would violate the pledge “for the good of the country,” and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who drew an analogy: “If I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I’m not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed, and the economic situation is different.” On Monday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he is “not obligated” to the pledge.

In truth, the anti-tax pledge never made a bit of sense. The signer gives his or her oath to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses” and to “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Translation: No new tax revenue. Ever.

Tax rates are allowed to go down, but not up. So Norquist wants the George W. Bush tax cuts — originally a temporary measure — to be considered permanent. He is struggling to convince Republicans not to take an obvious route: Allow the cuts to expire on Jan. 1, then quickly reinstate them for middle-class taxpayers but not for the wealthy. That way, pledge-takers could claim never to have voted to raise taxes, just to lower them.

Norquist also opposes the option mentioned by Graham, which is to leave rates unchanged but raise new revenue by capping deductions for “upper-income Americans.” According to the pledge, Norquist decrees, tax rates would then have to be cut so that the net effect is no new revenue.

“No one is caving,” Norquist confidently told The Wall Street Journal last week, as spidery cracks appeared in the ceiling of his bunker.

The truth is that Grover Norquist is neither a sorcerer nor an ogre. He is a genial man who has dangerously loopy ideas about the proper size and scope of government. He has an absolute right to free speech. And under current law — which, to be sure, should be changed — the corporations and tycoons who fund Americans for Tax Reform have a right to remain in the shadows, anonymously using their enormous financial resources to influence tax policy for selfish benefit.

Republicans who signed the pledge — and who now find themselves in a box — have only themselves to blame. To boost their own political fortunes, they lied to the voters. They pretended it was possible to provide the services that Americans need and want without collecting sufficient revenue. They sold the bogus promise of not just a free lunch, but a free breakfast and supper, too.

This is a big, complicated country that faces big, complicated challenges. There are no simple, one-sentence solutions. It is ridiculous to think we could ever tame the national debt through budget cuts alone, without a penny of new revenue. It is crazy to believe in some Arcadian fantasy of a federal government whose reach and responsibilities are no greater than they were in horse-and-buggy days.

President Obama has been trying to wake Republicans from this silly, self-defeating dream for four long years. Now, perhaps, a twitching of eyelids.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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