June 17, 2011

Grover Norquist is a hero. Or a dolt.

Grover Norquist is the head of the Americans For Tax Reform.  He's been in the news a lot lately because of the current debate over ending ethanol subsidies.  From a conservative perspective he's either a hero or a dolt, depending on who you read or how you read it.

As an example, the liberal Washington Post columnist Ezra Klien had this to say about Norquist;
Norquist, of course, is the anti-tax enforcer who leads Americans for Tax Reform. He's the guy who gets Republicans to pledge that they won't raise tax rates and won't get rid of tax breaks or close loopholes in a way that raises revenue (ending breaks or closing loopholes and using the money for tax cuts is, by contrast, fine and dandy). But yesterday, Republicans broke his pledge.

Tom Coburn gets credit for this one. Over the past few months, he'd publicly sparred with Norquist over whether you could end the ethanol subsidies in the tax code and use the money to pay down the deficit. Norquist said no, that was a tax hike. Technically, Norquist was correct. But Coburn had pulled back the curtain on the extremism of Norquist's position. Yesterday, the measure came up for a vote and failed, as Democrats, to their discredit, defended the subsidies. But Norquist decisively lost the vote: 34 Senate Republicans voted to end the subsidies and put the savings towards the deficit.

From that perspective clearly Norquist is against ending a subsidy, which is fundamentally wasteful government spending. By blindly following the avoid tax increases at all costs line, and not being alert to the bigger picture of stupid government spending, Norquist is wearing blinders to the bigger picture. Technically it could be viewed as a tax hike. But in the bigger picture, the government is spending money it doesn't have, on a stupid idea. Paying down the debt and getting the government out of the business of picking winners (something it typically gets wrong) are all smart moves. Lower deficits reduces incremental debt and therefore reduces additional government need to raise taxes to cover it's mounting insurmountable debt. Score one point for the dolt point of view.

But wait. This is what Reuters had to say;
(Reuters) - Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has made a career out of opposing taxes and subsidies, and the ethanol tax credit is no exception...
"Americans for Tax Reform and the overwhelmingly majority of the conservative movement support full repeal of the ethanol mandate, ethanol tariff, and the ethanol tax credit," the organization said on its website. 
While Norquist and his allies failed to eliminate or modify the ethanol tax credit in a Senate vote on Tuesday, they served notice that it will not give up. 
Norquist and his organization have for more than 25 years sought to hold politicians' feet to the fire on taxes.
One way is the so-called "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" which enlists all candidates for federal and state office to commit themselves in writing to oppose tax increases. In the 112th Congress, 236 of the 435 House members and 40 of the 100 Senators Senators have taken the pledge, while 13 of 50 state governors and 1249 state legislators have also taken the vow. 
Americans for Tax Reform told signers of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge that voting to repeal the ethanol tax credit would be consistent with their pledge.
So according to Reuters, Americans for Tax Reform got part of what they wanted.  What the miss is on the mandate side.  The subsidy goes away but  the mandate continues, whereas they should be eliminated hand in hand.  That Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform recognize this and are not done with the fight on the mandate side is a good thing.  Score one point for hero.

Liberals like Klein would love to believe that Norquist's supposedly mythical hold on conservative representatives is slipping.  That in part forms the basis for their narrative, and it affords them one more opportunity to attempt to vilify him.  Unlike liberals I don't believe he operates in a vacuum, so it's hard to justify the dolt perspective.  However, I can't crown him a hero just yet either.  Given that the mandate still exists, his work isn't done.  Granted, it really isn't his work but rather the work of representatives, but when you understand that it is part of the mandate and a goal, then he will obviously be trying to get the mandate removed.  When the mandate goes away, then hero might apply.

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