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December 3, 2012

The Perils of No Tax Increase Pledges

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It's a topic that's been covered before, here on these very pages. A Washington lobbyist, acting as a political power broker, convinces scores of candidates for state and federal office to sign a pledge to never, under any circumstances, raise taxes.


This particular lobbyist, Grover Norquist, established both a reputation and a base of support with Republican legislators. His non-profit advocacy firm, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), became the proverbial axe held over the political career of most GOP legislators.


If they refused to sign his pledge, he worked to recruit candidates who would. If a legislator, once having signed the pledge, ever deviated from their promise, Mr. Norquist would assure that a primary challenge arose in the next election. Often that primary challenger would be financed and prepared to run thanks to the ATR political outreach effort.


Mr. Norquist himself rose to prominence during the George W. Bush Administration. ATR's ties to Bush insider Karl Rove are legendary, and Mr. Norquist's own activities have long been financed by the biggest GOP campaign contributors, namely the Koch brothers – David and Charles.


If you've watched the Sunday news talk out of Washington, or paid much attention to Fox News, CNN or even MSNBC, Grover Norquist is a name to which you can attach a face.


As evidence of his Washington insider label, Mr. Norquist's name pops up when examining the sordid history of ex-super lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Two lobbying entities operated by Mr. Norquist are mentioned in the probe and reporting, including the aforementioned ATR.


To be fair, Grover Norquist has not been charged with any criminal conduct. It seems as though his lobbying and advocacy groups were merely conduits employed effectively by Abramoff to funnel contributions from Indian-owned casinos to favorably disposed politicians.


Not only not criminal, but in the business of K Street in the District of Columbia, this is what we call status quo.


A whole slew of top GOP congressional leaders are now speaking out against having their votes controlled by a pledge. Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (GA), John McCain (AZ) and Lindsey Graham (SC) have all stated on the record that they intend to vote their conscience, not their allegiance to Americans for Tax Reform.


Just this past week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., VA) indicated that even stalwart anti-tax GOP congressmen wouldn't be overly influenced by this pledge, especially if a good deal on entitlement cuts was placed on the table in return.


The juice lobbyists possess can be measured by how feared they are. The truly powerful advocates can normally do more harm to an elected official’s re-election chances than they can get one elected in the first place.


In Grover Norquist's case, his ability to rally a GOP base and recruit and finance primary challenges has as much to do with his success as anything else.


It's often the threat of bad versus the promise of good!


Given the national electoral outcome in the presidential race, Grover Norquist's 15 minutes of fame may be fast slipping away.


Since the tax cutting promises of the Mitt Romney ticket failed to capture the majority of voters, President Barack Obama now claims a mini-mandate for his "balanced" approach. Remember that in the president's dictionary, balance means increased taxes on wealthy Americans.


The threat of a political retaliation coming from a neutered Washington lobbyist-gadfly is essentially meaningless. If Mr. Norquist can't corral the current class of incumbents, how is he going to scare aspiring politicians with his little pledge?


This is not meant to imply that the Tea Party movement is dead, that all anti-tax advocates are going to fold up their tents and go home. Far from it.


Expect a down-n-dirty battle over the fiscal challenges we face. The Democrat majority in the U.S. Senate will hold the line on spending cuts, while the GOP-controlled House will fight tax increases.


Recently, House Speaker John Boehner (OH) has made it clear that new revenue will be a part of the ‘fiscal cliff’ discussion. While he stopped far short of raising marginal tax rates, or letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire, he did mention loophole closures and exemption caps.


The oracle of Omaha, billionaire investor Warren Buffet, recently weighed in on the tax debate. If raising the rate on those making over $250,000 is too tough, Mr. Buffet's suggestion was to raise it a little more, but only on those making over $500,000.


In the old days, that kind of talk would send Grover Norquist into a frenzy of spittle-flying, red-faced, foaming-at-the-mouth political threats. Now, he's lucky to still be invited to come on the Sunday morning news talk shows.


At some point, the phone will just stop ringing...


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