How Grover Norquist's Tax Pledge Trips Up Lawmakers

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The anti-tax advocate believes in never raising business taxes -- which can be a problem when trying to get rid of wasteful ethanol subsidies

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You'd think that every fiscal conservative not subject to a corn belt electorate would thrill at the chance to cut $6 billion in ethanol subsidies. But not Grover Norquist. He knows they're bad policy -- that they distort the economy, raise food prices, and redistribute money to a special interest based on the political clout it wields. But Norquist is an anti-tax zealot. That isn't someone who opposes most tax hikes, or even someone who opposes almost every proposed tax hike. An anti-tax zealot is someone who specifically opposed efforts to end a costly boondoggle because doing so would have ended tax breaks for producers of corn-based ethanol, thereby constituting a tax increase. And tax increases aren't okay under any circumstances.

For the uninitiated, Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and has long wielded a lot of clout in GOP politics and the conservative movement. The weekly meeting he hosts for right-leaning activists, politicians, and journalists is a DC institution. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund once called him the "Grand Central Station of conservatism." And he's the man behind The Pledge.

That's basically just a promise that Republican candidates are pressured to sign when they run for office. "Nationally there are 173 members of the U.S. House and 412 candidates for House seats who have signed the pledge," Norquist wrote in the run-up to last year's midterm elections, "and 33 sitting senators and 70 2010 candidates for the Senate as well as over 1,100 incumbent state legislators and nearly a thousand challengers for state legislative races have signed the pledge."

Here's the exact language:

I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

See the problem? Ending ethanol subsidies is plainly a violation of The Pledge, because it increases taxes on some businesses.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), doing yeoman's work in his attempt to end the wasteful ag subsidy, definitely did violate his promise, as did various Republican colleagues who supported his amendment in a Tuesday Senate vote. Rather than keep quiet, however, Norquist called them out, and in doing so has drawn conspicuous attention to the fact that The Pledge is flawed.

In this case, it increased the chance that an absurd big government intervention into the free market would persist indefinitely (as has happened -- the Coburn amendment narrowly failed) because it artificially keeps taxes low.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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