Why The ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Makes Norquist’s Anti-Tax Pledge Irrelevant

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) yesterday said that Republicans should embrace President Obama’s offer to extend the Bush tax cuts on income below $250,000 immediately, arguing that to do so would not violate Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge that so many Republicans have signed. “I don’t see that as a violation of my pledge,” Cole said, noting that “Republicans would be voting to lower [taxes] for most folks and do nothing — which would result in an increase — for the rest.”

Indeed, the pledge — which Norquist uses as a cudgel to cow any Republican who strays from his no-tax-increase line — is based on current law, so only extending some of the Bush tax cuts still counts as a tax reduction and doesn’t violate the pledge. Norquist himself admitted as much last year:

According to Mr. Norquist’s interpretation of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, lawmakers have the technical leeway to bring in as much as $4 trillion in new tax revenue — the cost of extending President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for another decade — without being accused of breaking their promise. “Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase,” Mr. Norquist told us. So it doesn’t violate the pledge? “We wouldn’t hold it that way,” he said.

This interpretation makes sense, because if it weren’t true, then voting for any temporary tax cut would technically violate the pledge, as doing so would mean voting for a tax increase at some point in the future, as conservative writer Kevin Glass noted. Citizens for Tax Justice agreed: “Rep. Cole is correct because the Bush tax cuts are temporary tax cuts that are specifically written to expire at a certain date. Any extension of part of those tax cuts is a new tax cut that reduces revenue, and is ‘scored’ by the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office as a revenue loss.”

Other Republicans have hinted that they think the same way as Cole. “I don’t intend to violate any pledge,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). “What we’re faced with in just a few weeks is a massive tax increase. If I can help ensure that we don’t have that tax increase, then I believe I’ve fulfilled my pledge to fight for the lowest possible taxes.”

Last year, Norquist tried to muddle his statement, while never quite denying that allowing tax cuts to expire is in accordance with the pledge. Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, confirmed the same thing when questioned by ThinkProgress.