From today's NYT
Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, has had the good sense to demand an end to the $5 billion annual tax credit to makers of corn ethanol, a wasteful subsidy to farm states that is also dubious environmental policy. For his outspokenness, Senator Coburn was pilloried by anti-government activists of his own party who cannot stand the idea of more revenues flowing into the federal Treasury. But he and a few others in the Senate are holding fast, suggesting that at least some Republicans are willing to break with party orthodoxy to reduce the long-term budget deficit.
The loudest criticism came from Grover Norquist, whose group, Americans for Tax Reform, is the author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge that has become a sacred covenant for virtually anyone wishing to run as a Republican. More than 95 percent of the Republicans in Congress have signed it (including Senator Coburn), as have many Republican governors and state lawmakers.
The pledge is often thought of as an agreement never to vote for raising taxes for any reason, but it goes even further than that. Those who sign it also vow never to eliminate any tax deductions or credits (like the handout to ethanol makers), unless the resulting increase in revenues is offset, dollar for dollar, by further tax cuts.
The pledge is really less about keeping taxes low than it is about holding down government revenues, which prevent the growth of government services. Mr. Norquist has famously said his goal is to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Mr. Norquist can afford to be candid about his fierce aversion to government services, since he does not have to run for office with the votes of people who like those services. The Republican lawmakers who have joined his congregation, however, are less forthright about the effect of their policies. They go around lulling constituents with phony mantras like “Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem,” as if cutting spending is the only conceivable solution to lowering the deficit.
This purity finally ran into a tough-minded pragmatist in Senator Coburn. Though his zeal to eliminate many worthy government programs is still excessive, he is right to see the wastefulness in the ethanol giveaway — and the extremism of Mr. Norquist’s position. Senator Coburn’s spokesman has even described Mr. Norquist as “the chief cleric of Sharia tax law.”
Senator Coburn is also a member of the “gang of six” senators that has been trying to find a bipartisan way to reduce the nation’s debt. He and the two other Republicans in the group, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Michael Crapo of Idaho, say they are opposed to raising tax rates but hope to rewrite the tax code in a way that brings in more revenue by eliminating many unnecessary tax breaks and broadening the tax base.
That, at least, represents the beginning of a useful conversation. It could very well mean that the rich would pay more in taxes. Which is why Mr. Norquist, in full grand-inquisitor style, has demanded that Senator Coburn drop out of the gang.
His influence, happily, seems to be on the wane. The three senators have reminded Mr. Norquist that their highest oath is not to him or some abstract pledge, but to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.