As Congress hurtles toward a self-imposed deadline to cut at least $1.2 trillion from deficits during the next 10 years, conservative lawmakers face tough choices on whether to keep their pledge to never raise taxes.
All six GOP members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction have signed the taxpayer protection pledge, launched in 1986 by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), an antitax group. All but six House Republicans and seven US senators have also signed.
The pledge commits lawmakers to opposing any hikes in tax rates. It also opposes cutting tax breaks or loopholes, unless they are entirely offset by spending cuts or other tax breaks. The idea is to ensure that no new money goes to the federal government but instead remains in the wallets of taxpayers.
But that opposition to any net tax increase is emerging as a major obstacle to the deficit "super committee" reaching a deal by its Nov. 23 deadline. Democrats on the panel are committed to a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, which includes increases to federal revenue, such as tax hikes on the highest-income Americans.
Now there are signs that, even for some prominent conservatives, the constraints of the ATR pledge are beginning to chafe.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Budget Committee, lately is avoiding being forced to give a yes-or-no answer to questions on tax hikes. All GOP presidential hopefuls responded in a recent debate that they would oppose revenue increases as part of a deficit-reduction deal, even if the ratio was $1 in tax hikes for every $10 in spending cuts.
“I think that was more of a gotcha question and trying to get people to look like they violated some pledge they may have taken,” he said during an interview with National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” on Friday. “I’m not going to play this game.”
“I believe you can get higher revenues through tax reform and economic growth, and I think that’s the way to do it, because you don’t want to compromise job creation,” he said.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R) of California, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, is lobbying his colleagues hard to not accept further defense cuts as part of a deficit compromise. But he doesn’t want to be forced to choose between defense spending and a tax hike.
“I don’t want to get to that point,” he said, in comments off the House floor.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who has signed the pledge, has suggested there is some wiggle room. “Some [conservatives] won’t even let you get rid of a tax deduction or tax expenditure, unless it matches up with a tax cut. I’m not one of those.”
“If you can get rid of something as bad as the ethanol subsidy, I don’t think we should feel compelled to find a corresponding tax cut,” he added.
ATR President Grover Norquist calls adherence to the pledge a principled stance and a commitment to voters, not to ATR or to himself. He predicts it will not break down in the heat of negotiations to reach a deal.
“All of the guys on that committee have taken the pledge and understand it,” he says. “Everything I’m hearing is that we’re fine.”
An anti-Norquist pledge petition, signed by more than 11,000 online responders, calls on "Gridlock Grover" to affirm that the constitutional oath of public officials should trump ATR's no-tax pledge. "Over the past several months, politicians across the political spectrum have argued that your demand for ideological purity and your strong-arm enforcement tactics are paralyzing Congress and preventing Congress from solving the problems of the American people," reads the petition sponsored by the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington.
On Tuesday, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the deficit panel, proposed more than $1 trillion in tax increases in a $3 trillion deficit-reduction plan. GOP leaders on and off the panel quickly dismissed it.
“Democrats come up with phony proposals like the $3 trillion [plan] to mask tax increases,” says Mr. Norquist. “Democrats want to raise taxes and they don’t want to cut spending. Republicans don’t want to raise taxes, but they want to cut spending. That’s exactly what we want the narrative to be between now and the next election cycle.”