Did the 34 GOP Senators Break the Taxpayer Protection Pledge? No!

by Marlo Lewis on June 15, 2011

in Blog, Features

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Everybody and his brother are reporting yesterday’s cloture vote on Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment to repeal the ethanol tax credit as a widespread rejection by GOP lawmakers of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, conceived and administered by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). This is spin.

Many in Washington would like nothing better than for Republicans to disown their chief product differentiator, their promise in writing not to raise taxes. That may happen. Raising taxes is what politicians do, especially those who claim we have a deficit problem rather than an overspending problem. But repudiating the Pledge is not what went down in the Senate on Tuesday.

Here’s how one commentator, Howard Gleckman of the Urban Institute, described the vote:

In a small but important way, 34 GOP senators proved to themselves–if to no one else–that they can vote to “raise taxes.”  Most had signed the infamous pledge demanded by the self-styled protector of the faith, Grover Norquist, that they would never ever vote to raise taxes on anyone in any circumstances. Now, they have.

Actually, no, they have not, as I’ll explain below. But first, let’s be clear about one thing — even a false accusation of breaking the Taxpayer Protection Pledge can be damaging to GOP lawmakers. Consider this story by Ben Geman in yesterday’s edition of The Hill:

Mass. Dems bash Sen. Scott Brown on ethanol vote
Massachusetts Democrats are attacking Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) for his vote Tuesday in favor of repealing a major ethanol industry tax break, alleging the vote broke with Brown’s signed pledge to a major conservative group not to raise taxes.

Brown — who faces reelection in the typically blue Bay State next year — voted with 33 other Republicans and six Democrats for Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) amendment, which fell well short of the 60 votes needed.

“During his campaign for U.S. Senate, Scott Brown told voters what he thought they wanted to hear and now that he’s in Washington, he’s breaking promises right and left,” said Massachusetts Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Franck in a statement.

Brown, ahead of his upset 2010 Senate win, touted his signing of the group Americans for Tax Reform’s (ATR) “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which states that he would opposes tax hikes and “any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

There are several errors here. To begin with, the Pledge that Brown and 33 other GOP Senators and all but six GOP House Members have signed is not to ATR but to the people of their respective states or districts. ATR administers the Pledge and monitors fidelity to it, but the Pledge is a promise from the lawmaker to his constituents.

More importantly, those claiming that Brown and other GOP Senators broke the Pledge are mistaken for two separate reasons.

First, yesterday’s vote was procedural — a vote on a cloture motion. It was a vote on whether to end debate and have a vote on Sen. Coburn’s amendment to kill the ethanol tax credit. It was not a vote for or against repeal of the tax credit. It does not count one way or the other under the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Second, even if the Coburn amendment had come to a vote, Sen. Brown could have voted for it without violating the Pledge.

Here’s why. Candidates who take the Pledge promise to oppose (1) increases in marginal tax rates and (2) repeal or reduction of tax deductions or credits “unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” Had the Coburn amendment come up for a vote, Sen. Jim DeMint was prepared to offer an amendment killing both ethanol’s main policy privilege — the Soviet-style production quota euphemistically called the “Renewable Fuel Standard” — and the death tax. Repeal of the the death tax would overwhelm the tax increase from repeal of the ethanol tax credit.

Thus, by voting for the DeMint amendment, Brown and the other GOP Senators could have voted for the Coburn amendment and still kept their promise to oppose any net increase in taxes.

givemeabreak June 17, 2011 at 8:13 am

The logic at the end of this is as convoluted as any I have ever seen.

The fact is that that vote enables the Coburn, supported mostly by Democrats to end the ethanol subsidies. The argument that because there was another amendment that they could possibly vote for that would OVERALL lower taxes makes no sense for about two reasons:

1) Even in DeMint’s measure, taxes would still rise for ethanol producers – thus raising taxes for someone. The fact that it also lowers taxes for a small, elite group who die leaving a multimillion dollar estates does not change that it raises taxes on some.

2) If I accepted that DeMint’s measure that raised taxes on some, while lowering it more for others was ok, the question is why the Republican Senators did not force that amendment up for a vote – as you are implying that the combination is what they intended. Now, the answer to that is obvious – it would fail badly. It is likely that no Democrat would vote for it – meaning it could not get the needed 60 votes. As this is obvious, the Senators who voted for Coburn’s bill can not be said to have balanced the increase in taxes by a decrease they know they could not get.

The fact is that it is unrealistic to be both obsessed with eliminating the deficit and unwilling to raise tax revenues – even by closing tax loopholes. The fact is that tax revenues as a percent of GDP are at a several decades low, while spending is at a high. Both of these facts contribute to the high deficit – and both should change to lower the deficit. Just returning to 2000 tax rates would eliminate 75% of the deficit – and with those tax rates in the 1990s, business thrived.

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