Coburn-Norquist Spat Underscores GOP's Irrational Stance On Taxes

April 27, 2011 3:26 pm ET — Matt Finkelstein

At a time when Republicans have successfully shifted the national political conversation to deficit reduction, it shouldn't be a matter of controversy that the federal government's revenue stream is languishing. Yet, Republican leaders continue to insist that "we don't have a revenue problem" in order to justify huge spending cuts as their myopic solution to the deficit.

Speaker John Boehner

So it was surprising when, in a rare moment of candor earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) conceded that "the federal government's short on revenue." As for possible solutions, Boehner briefly endorsed repealing taxpayer giveaways to the oil industry before his spokesman took it back, saying that "raising taxes" is a "nonstarter."

This is a standard talking point, but it's important to understand what Republican lawmakers actually mean by "raising taxes." Instead of merely opposing changes in tax rates, such as those that would result from ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, they are ruling out anything that would increase government revenues.

Consider the ongoing dust-up between Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. While he opposes any "significant tax hike," Coburn, a key Republican in the so-called "Gang of Six" negotiations, has publicly discussed the need to enhance revenues. Coburn wants to do away with ethanol subsidies that Norquist also claims to oppose, but ATR won't endorse Coburn's plan unless it is accompanied by additional tax cuts to offset the change in revenue. 

In other words, ATR's position is that increasing revenues is fundamentally wrong — even if it's accomplished through policies they support. The group is so committed to this pig-headed position that it's accusing Coburn of violating the ATR-sponsored "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" he signed when he was running for office.

The spat between Coburn and ATR is relevant because few Republican lawmakers are willing to defy ATR's position on anything tax-related. In this Congress alone, 237 representatives and 41 senators signed the anti-tax pledge. That's 278 members of Congress who are bound by ATR's position, no matter how unreasonable, lest they risk allegations of "betraying" voters.

Speaker Boehner is calling on President Obama to "grow up and get serious" about reducing the deficit. But until they acknowledge that eliminating the deficit will require higher revenues, Republicans are still the ones acting like children.