Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform and leader of the anti-tax movement, is used to getting his way, at least when it comes to politicians from conservative parts of the country. Many conservative lawmakers have signed ATR's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" which is a promise to oppose tax increases in any and all circumstances.
But these are not normal times, and Norquist's grip on conservatives may be loosening, one finger at a time. The country faces a long-term budget crisis that requires long-term solutions. But most of the debate so far has been over the GOP's proposals for immediate cuts in discretionary spending that will slow down our economic recovery without doing much to address the long-term problem. Something has to change.
In this environment, lawmakers are more willing to consider spending cuts and revenue increases than they were before. Towards the end of last year, a majority of the members of the President's fiscal commission voted in favor of a plan to slash spending and dramatically overhaul the tax system in a way that would raise some revenue. The three Republican Senators on the commission voted in favor of the plan, and Grover Norquist naturally disapproved.
In reality, the fiscal commission's plan was outrageously conservative. CTJ and other observers objected that it relied on spending cuts for two thirds of the deficit reduction while relying on increased revenue for just one third. But for Republican lawmakers, supporting even one dollar of new revenue can incite the wrath of Norquist and raise the specter of a primary challenge.
Now a "gang of six" Senators — three Republicans and three Democrats — has been meeting and talking about deficit reduction in a way that would involve reducing spending and increasing revenue. The Republicans include Mike Crapo and Tom Coburn (Senators on the fiscal commission who voted in favor of the plan) and Saxby Chambliss. It seems likely they will propose something similar to the commission's plan.
The Republican members of the gang of six certainly don't champion tax increases in the traditional sense, but are willing to consider raising revenue through eliminating tax expenditures, that is, government spending through the tax code. Senator Coburn has been especially forthcoming. He's even written OpEds about particular tax expenditures, like the subsidy for ethanol, that need to be cut.
Of course, anti-tax crusader Norquist has criticized the negotiations as a "transparent attempt to hike taxes," which he says violates the taxpayer protection pledge that the three Republicans have signed. In a thoughtful and carefully-worded letter, the three responded to Norquist that they were working to "protect taxpayers, not special interests."
An article in Politico went so far as to say Norquist's threat has been "a nonfactor" inside the bipartisan talks. That's not a good sign for someone in the business of scaring politicians into an extreme and rigid ideology.