Main Enemy of Gas Tax Increase May Experience Defections (Updated 11-28)

Grover Norquist is Enemy #1 of a federal gas tax increase. More and more congestion-relief projects vital to economic growth are being delayed for lack of funding.

No one on the national level has done more to thwart the consideration of gas tax increase than Grover Norquist. In our July 2011 story (“Who’s the #1 Enemy of a Federal Gas Tax Increase?”) we noted Norquist has

“cajoled Republicans – even those who recognize the need for infrastructure investment – into signing a pledge to oppose tax increases.  His success is impressive, if frustrating to transportation stakeholders.”

At that time, back in July 2011, a slight crack had appeared in the Norquist anti-tax wall. Senator Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republican Senators, said Norquist is “absurd” for declaring that eliminating a multi-billon dollar subsidy for ethanol is a tax increase. Coburn had proposed eliminating the subsidy as part of the debt-reduction efforts. Forty-three republicans sided with Coburn against Norquist, which is likely one of the bigger defeats Norquist had experienced to date.

Flash forward to today, and Norquist is experiencing the strongest challenge ever to his pledge.

Politico is running five (!) stories about different Republican Representatives and Senators pushing back on Norquist in recent days:

Norquist’s response? “We’ve had some people discussing impure thoughts on national television,” in an interview with CNN’s “Starting Point.” Learn more about Norquist from this lengthy Washington Post profile.

Even the Tea Party seems to be leaving the door open a thin crack for tax increases, according to the Washington Post: “Sal Russo, the founder of the Tea Party Express, said his group would obviously prefer that Republicans vote against tax increases, but that it doesn’t believe in litmus tests and is willing to look at the entire package,” (“The GOP’s ‘Read my lips’ moment”).

The Washington Post’s Chris Cizzilla is skeptical that much will come of it:

“For the Republican Party, though, it will be very difficult to sell its anti-tax base on even a good [fiscal cliff] deal that includes tax increases. This is a Republican Party, after all, whose presidential candidates all stood on a debate stage last year and said that they would reject a deal that includes $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases.”

And one prominent, longtime DC observer discounts the challenges to Norquist. Stan Collender, former columnist for National Journal and Roll Call notes the dissidents (my word):

“are not important players in the Senate on the fiscal cliff, and they specifically rejected higher tax rates –the White House’s preference — in any case. In other words, all they did was endorse the long-standing GOP position on taxes. More important, however, is that the GOP senators are not as important to a fiscal cliff deal than House Republicans and none of them have said they’re going to break the pledge,” (“Don’t Believe The Reports Of Progress On The Fiscal Cliff“).

Looking carefully at the precise wording of each Member’s quotes, Collender raises valid points. People unfamiliar with the nuances of the Republican party and its Congressional Members may mistake these anti-Norquist pledge comments for being a bigger deal than they are. But I think the challenges are stronger than Collender indicates, and that members do sound willing to break the pledge in exchange for compromises in spending from the Democratic side.

Republican Rep. Scott Rigell has said “I go where the numbers lead me. And a careful analysis of our budget and trying to reconcile that with the Americans for Tax Reforms pledge led me to the clear decision that the pledge itself is an impediment to meaningful tax reform,” (Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), in an interview with CNN.

Republican Representative Steve LaTourette said “I signed the Norquist pledge back in October 1994 — 18 years ago — and it’s a different world. And so the pressure that our colleagues face are different than the ones that I faced in the ’90s with the explosion of the internet and quite frankly cable news programs,” (in an interview with CNN; Nov. 16, 2012). LaTourette is retiring, unfortunately for transportation stakeholders.

Let’s hope the same conversation occurs when Congress begins to work on the successor to MAP-21, and realizes that only a gas tax increase will prevent steep cuts to transportation programs. Increasing the gas tax in exchange for greater transparency, accountability and performance management in transportation should be on the table.

That conversation could happen even sooner. State highway officials and transportation construction industries are  pressing lawmakers to raise the federal gasoline tax as part of a fiscal cliff agreement.

Add while Norquist may be enemy #1 of a gas tax increase, it could be argued that over the last four years another primary obstacle has been President Obama’s absolute unwillingness to consider an increase.

Update: The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein published this a few days after our story:

“The true test of Norquist’s pledge wasn’t whether a Republican ever voted for another tax increase. It was whether it held tax revenues below where they’d otherwise be. It’s whether it increased the political cost of raising taxes. And today, you can see how well his pledge has worked.

A Democratic president just won reelection with a significant majority. Democrats just took 55 seats in the Senate. House Democrats won more votes than House Republicans. Yet it’s a given that any deal that includes tax increases will also include large spending cuts, and perhaps even entitlement reforms — and Democrats are celebrating the possibility of such a deal as a huge coup. They are ecstatic that Norquist’s pledge might fall even before they know how much tax revenue they’ll get.

And it’s not, in the scheme of things, that much revenue. If President Obama gets every dollar he’s asked for, the Congressional Budget Office estimate tax receipts will equal 19.4 percent of GDP over the next decade. That’s less than it was during most of Bill Clinton’s second term, despite the fact that our population is older, our spending is higher and our projected deficits are far more severe. Moreover, it’s far less than the 21.6 percent of GDP we’d get if the Bush tax cuts expired fully. The furor over the prospect of any tax increase at all has helped obscure the fact that Obama wants to raise taxes by far less than George W. Bush cut them.

If Republicans had won the election, there would be no similar give among the GOP: harsh spending cuts would be considered inevitable, but tax increases would be considered unthinkable. Norquist’s pledge has made modest tax increases as part of a larger fiscal deal look like a painful concession even in the aftermath of a complete Democratic victory. He’s made even a small increase in taxes seems like an earth-shaking policy concession from the Republican Party.

That’s Norquist’s victory, though to achieve it, he has to run around town telling everyone that his pledge can’t be broken and promising to exact terrible vengeance against any Republicans who vote for a tax increase. If Norquist’s pledge is to work, he has to make us believe in it, even as it’s being broken. And we do,” (Grover Norquist is winning).