UPDATED: Norquist Admits The Obvious: Allowing Temporary Tax Cuts To Expire Is Not Raising Taxes

July 21, 2011 11:09 am ET — Jamison Foser

Grover NorquistThe Washington Post editorial board reports a breakthrough concession from Grover Norquist

With a handful of exceptions, every Republican member of Congress has signed a pledge against increasing taxes. Would allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire as scheduled in 2012 violate this vow? We posed this question to Grover Norquist, its author and enforcer, and his answer was both surprising and encouraging: No.

In other words, 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.

It may seem obvious that allowing temporary tax cuts to expire as planned does not constitute "raising taxes," but Washington's handling of public policy debates isn't well known for acknowledging obvious truths. 

As the scheduled expiration of the tax cuts originally signed by President George W. Bush has approached, Republicans, conservative activists, and many in the media have repeatedly claimed that allowing the cuts to expire as scheduled is "raising taxes." It's a fundamentally dishonest argument, as I explained when Paul Ryan invoked it in April:

Ryan's argument is that allowing tax cuts to expire as scheduled is a tax increase, and that making them permanent does not count as a tax cut. Nonsense. By that logic, permanently extending the expiring elements of the 2009 stimulus package would not constitute additional spending. But you'd have to be a fool to believe Ryan would apply his tax cut logic to spending. Therefore, Ryan's argument is dishonest and fraudulent.

But the dishonesty and fraudulence of the argument hasn't stopped Republicans from making it ad nauseam — and hasn't stopped the news media from taking it seriously, and in many cases even adopting it as their own. Even PolitiFact, which exists to correct falsehoods, peddled this one. The effect has been to rig the tax debate in favor of Republicans, and in favor of ever-smaller revenue:

If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much — by making them "temporary" — but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase. The GOP gets to have it both ways, describing tax cuts as temporary when it helps them, and pretending they were intended to be permanent when it helps them. It's no great surprise Republicans want to have it both ways — but that doesn't mean the media should go along.

But now Grover Norquist, the most dogmatic of anti-tax ideologues, admits that allowing the scheduled expiration of tax cuts does not constitute a tax increase. This is remarkable considering that Norquist is so zealous in his advocacy of lower revenues that he opposes closing tax loopholes he says he disagrees with unless the resultant revenue increase is offset via lower tax rates. But it's even more remarkable when you consider that Grover Norquist's power and fame derives almost entirely from the perception he has created that Republicans mustn't ever raise taxes. If that perception is weakened, Norquist himself will be greatly diminished. Norquist, in other words, cannot afford to be seen as soft on tax increases. So when he says something isn't a tax increase, it almost certainly isn't a tax increase.

With even Norquist giving up the ruse that doing nothing while tax cuts expire as scheduled constitutes raising taxes, there's no excuse for anyone else peddling this misinformation — not that there ever was.

UPDATE: That didn't take long. Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform are now denying the obvious, in direct contradiction of Norquist's comment to the Post, logic, and the English language:

ATR opposes all tax increases on the American people.  Any failure to extend or make permanent the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, in whole or in part, would clearly increase taxes on the American people.  In addition, the failure to extend the AMT patch would increase taxes.  The outlines of the plans are deliberately hazy, but it appears that both Obama's Simpson-Bowles commission proposal and the Gang-of-Six proposal dramatically increase taxes on the American people.

It is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to trade temporary tax reductions for permanent tax hikes.

To take ATR's position seriously is to define "temporary" as "permanent" and "inaction" as "action." It is simply nonsense.

Watch Norquist's reversal HERE.

UPDATE II: The Washington Post has made available audio of Norquist's comments, which makes clear that he did indeed indicate that allowing a temporary tax cut to expire does not constitute raising taxes. Interestingly, in explaining that stance, Norquist lends support to the point I've been making that conservatives would never apply the "logic" behind their argument that allowing expiration constitutes raising taxes to analogous situations. Here's Norquist:

Our friend, uh, [California] Governor Brown, wants to extend a temporary tax increase. That is a tax increase, because present law says it goes away.

So, according to Grover Norquist, extending a temporary tax increase is increasing taxes, because present law "says it goes away." Therefore, allowing a temporary tax increase to expire is not cutting taxes. Therefore, ATR's position that allowing a temporary tax cut to expire is increasing taxes is a dishonest and illogical double standard. Nobody should take it seriously.