In an interview with the American Enterprise Institute’s Stuart James and Daniel Hanson for its “Banter”podcast on Wednesday, Americans for Tax Reform founder and president Grover Norquist relived a dust-up he had with Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn this year, in which the two publicly traded barbs over the merits of ending ethanol tax credits during a budget fight. In the podcast, Norquist accused Coburn of dishonesty and said he had a hidden agenda.
Norquist has become something of an urban legend, depicted by many as being a puppet master of the Republican Party, calling the shots on budget and tax policy legislation in Congress by strong-arming members into signing pledges promising that they would never vote to raise taxes.
“People who say that haven’t read the pledge or they’re dishonest,” Norquist said. “And falling into the dishonest category, sadly, was [Tom] Coburn. Sen. Coburn was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, having spent too much time sitting with Democrats hoping to get them to agree to spending cuts. And all they kept saying is, ‘We’ll think about spending cuts if you put taxes on the table.’
“And I talked to him on the phone and we exchanged letters and he swore up and down in writing he’d never do any net tax increase. The only revenues he would ever consider were to come from growth — not any elimination of credits or deductions or rate increases. None of that. No net tax increase. He just spent too much time with Democrats in the room. And he decided in order to get the Democrats to talk to him about imaginary spending cuts, he would have to get a tax increase.”
Part of the disagreement was the elimination of a $6-billion ethanol tax credit, which Coburn had put on the table at the time of the budget debate.
“And then of course he said to his fellow Republicans, ‘Here’s my new theory,’” Norquist explained. “And they all said, ‘We all promised not to raise taxes. Good luck with your theory. We’re not participating.’ So he said, ‘OK, here’s what I’ll do: I will put an icky tax credit — the ethanol tax credit, which is almost $6 billion, ending in six months — I’ll put that out and we’ll eliminate that and then if everybody votes for that, they will have voted for a $6 billion, one-time tax increase, small in Washington standards.”
Norquist explained that Coburn’s effort would have been a gateway to an even larger $1 trillion tax increase.
The plan backfired, he said, because South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint and Kansas RepublicanRep. Mike Pompeo introduced a plan to eliminate that ethanol and other energy tax credits, but offset it with an across-the-board tax cut in the same amount, making it “revenue neutral.”
Norquist said that incident had changed his opinion of Coburn and his “unimpeachable conservative credentials.”
“It is irritating to me that Coburn got wrapped around the axle here and lied about the pledge,” Norquist said. “Go lie about other things, but not about the pledge. And that I think was unfortunate … So he gave speeches about the virtues of mandates. We handed out to all the free market guys in town and nobody will ever say to me again that Coburn does have unimpeachable conservative credentials because he doesn’t.”