Tom Coburn’s tax pledge to Oklahomans

Ryan Ellis President, Center for a Free Economy
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On “Meet the Press” this Sunday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was asked why he was seemingly prepared to support and vote for a net income tax increase despite being a signer of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. His answer is as revealing as it is incorrect: “Which pledge is most important … the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States, or a pledge from a special interest group?”

The fact is, Senator Coburn has not made any pledge to Americans for Tax Reform (the “special interest group” he is referring to). He has, however, made a written pledge to the people of Oklahoma. It’s written down for anyone to see on ATR’s website. It says: “I, Tom Coburn, pledge to the taxpayers of the state of Oklahoma and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

The plan that the “Gang of Six” (led by Coburn on the GOP side, joined by Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho) is considering is a direct and clear violation of the second clause of his pledge to Oklahomans. He would like to repeal or restrict hundreds of billions of dollars in tax deductions and credits. But rather than plowing all that money into lower tax rates (as he promised the people of his state that he would before they elected him), the plan will reportedly raise net taxes by $1 trillion or more over the next decade (which would amount to one of the largest net tax hikes in history). Note that any tax reform would be consistent with the promise Coburn made to Oklahoma if every penny of the tax increases went into lower marginal tax rates — but they don’t. Under President Obama’s Simpson-Bowles commission plan — the first draft of the Gang of Six budget — much of the money is simply sopped up by Washington, with the vague promise that spending will be cut.

If this sounds familiar, it should. In 1982, President Reagan was promised $3 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax hikes. The tax hikes happened as a matter of law; he was still waiting for the spending cuts when he left office. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush broke his “read my lips” tax pledge at the infamous Andrews Air Force Base deal which promised $2 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax hikes. The tax hikes went through, but spending actually ended up higher than it was projected to be before the deal.

The Gang of Six plan will reportedly get even worse than a simple gargantuan tax hike. In order to ensure that enough of our tax dollars are going to Washington, the plan will include a “tax trigger” based on the one proposed in the Simpson-Bowles plan. Under their trigger, if tax revenues failed to meet a new (higher) target, all deductions and credits would be chopped off at the knees. That means everyone’s ability to exclude health insurance from wages, deduct mortgage interest, or make a tax-deducible charitable contribution would be limited. No doubt the “Gang of Six” plan will exempt refundable tax credits (which are partially to mostly welfare checks) like the EITC from this “haircut,” as the Simpson-Bowles commission did and as Senator Coburn’s partners on the Democrat side of the aisle will insist.

Senator Coburn is saying that he has a higher obligation to the Democrat senators in the Gang of Six, and can no longer be bound by the terms of the pledge he made to the voters and taxpayers of his state. It would have been nice if he had shared this change of heart with voters before standing for another six-year term this past November. He claims that he doesn’t want to be bound by any promise made to ATR, and indeed he is not — he made no such promise to ATR. In writing, for all the world to see, he made a solemn promise to the voters in Oklahoma.

If he agrees to raise net taxes, Senator Coburn is betraying them, not ATR.

Ryan Ellis is tax policy director at Americans for Tax Reform. His Twitter handle is @Taxplaya