U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, like Senate colleague Johnny Isakson and seven of Georgia’s eight GOP congressmen, has signed a public pledge to never, under any circumstances, increase taxes.
Yet Chambliss, to his credit, has been working for months as one of six senators — three Republican, three Democrat — trying to negotiate a possible deficit reduction package.
The other two Republicans in that group, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho — have also signed the no-tax-increase-ever pledge. Yet all three are willing to acknowledge the reality that increased taxes would have to be part — in their minds a small part — of any workable deal to reduce the budget deficit.
In a meeting at the AJC last month, Chambliss recounted conversations with many of his colleagues in Washington, as well as many top business executives, in which they quietly encouraged him in his efforts to reach a deal. They too seem to realize that a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases will be needed to stabilize the debt.
But that response has been far from unanimous.
Just this week, House Speaker John Boehner said tax increases are “off the table,” and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was even more point blank:
“We’re not going to raise taxes. That was decided in last November’s election. I think the American people pretty clearly believe that we have the deficit problem because we spend too much, not because we tax too little.”
Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform and as such the self-ordained organizer, marketer and enforcer of the no-new-taxes pledge, had even less reason to be pleased. Once news of their effort became public, Norquist accused Chambliss and his GOP colleagues of lying to the American people and demanded that they withdraw from negotiations.
While the senators have not bowed to that demand, hope seems to be fading that their effort will produce a deal. And it’s impossible to know what effect, if any, Norquist’s foot-stomping may have had on frustrating those negotiations.
However, there’s no doubt that Norquist takes his role as enforcer seriously, and not merely out of conviction. The pledge, which he serves as sponsor and arbiter, represents the very foundation of his political power and relevance. It is, in effect, his livelihood. If signatories such as Chambliss ever begin to abandon the pledge, if the dam begins to break, Norquist becomes a much diminished figure.
As one measure of his considerable power, earlier this year Georgia Republicans refused to move forward with their proposal to revamp the state’s tax structure until Norquist could be consulted and give it his blessing. When Norquist balked, legislators then agreed to rewrite the bill to accommodate his demands.
That’s a remarkable amount of authority to hand some unelected, out-of-state nonprofit bureaucrat from Washington. But it becomes easier to understand once you look at the list of state officials who have committed themselves to the Norquist pledge.
According to a list on Norquist’s website, Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, House Ways and Means Chairman Larry O’Neal, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Heath and 50 other legislators have all signed an oath to never, under any conditions, agree to raise government revenue.
As the crotchety Coburn from Oklahoma put it, responding to Norquist:
“Which pledge is most important… the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don’t?”
– Jay Bookman