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Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform and the guy almost solely responsible for making tax-hatred orthodoxy within the Republican Party for the past two decades, is still working on what constitutes a "tax." Which seems like it could be a problem!

Last week, Americans for Tax Reform published its analysis of the Ryan-Murray budget deal, including an increase in airline tickets fees. Because of how the fee increase is structured, in ATR's estimation, it "straddles the line between a tax increase and a user fee without technically crossing into tax hike territory." That it didn't cross that line, according to Norquist and ATR, is important in theory because of that large number of politicians (all but one of whom are Republicans) who've signed Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge."

The pledge itself stipulates a fairly tightly prescribed set of increases, namely:

  • "ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
  • "TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."

But the shorthand for Norquist's work is this: "No new taxes." And since Norquist likes that short-hand, since it lets him draw a hard line in the sand, he doesn't spend a lot of time dealing with the nuance of that first point above.

Until he has to, as with the Ryan-Murray bill. Or any of the other recent occasions on which ATR has been forced to tip-toe/tap-dance on what it means by a "tax." For example:

  • October 2013: A tax on marijuana isn't, you know, a tax. "When you legalize something and more people do more of it, and the government gets more revenue because there's more of it ... that's not a tax increase," Norquist told National Journal. "The tax goes from 100 percent, meaning it's illegal, to whatever the tax is."
  • December 2012: ATR declares that it won't fault legislators for agreeing to Speaker John Boehner's plan to allow the Bush tax cuts on wealthy Americans to expire. "In ATR’s analysis," it writes, "it is extremely difficult — if not impossible — to fault these Republicans’ assertion" that the move is consistent with the pledge, because "this tax bill contains no tax increases of any kind." Letting some tax cuts but not other expire is not raising taxes, ATR said.
  • November 2011: Letting the payroll tax cut expire also isn't a tax increase. "Because it was sold as a one-year thing," Norquist told U.S. News, "continuing it would be a tax cut."
  • April 2010: A push to force land-based radio stations to pay royalties to artists is not a tax increase because the "definition of a tax is the transfer of wealth from a household or business to the government."

That statement, which appeared in an opinion piece at Roll Call, makes another key point: "For years, policymakers have attempted to disguise tax hikes using innocuous terms such as 'fine,' 'fee' or 'penalty.'" Stand up to that attempt to twist language to political purposes, America!

Last January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told NBC's David Gregory that the "arbiter of whether something is a tax increase or not is Americans for Tax Reform." Which is probably smart, given that Norquist's definitions are otherwise pretty hard to predict.

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