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WI: Forsaking the pledge — Republicans say no to Norquist’s no-tax vow

By   /   December 3, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle  | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Is tax hater Grover Norquist Super Grover no more?

The mind and muscle behind Americans for Tax Reform and its Taxpayer Protection Pledge has of late seen some defectors from the agreement’s stringent demand that political candidates and incumbents oppose any and all tax increases.

SUPER GROVER? Some of Wisconsin GOP Congress members back away from Grover Norquist’s tax pledge.

Some of Wisconsin’s GOP congressional delegation, too, many known as budget hawks, are backing away from Norquist’s pledge in the waning hours of Deal or No Deal on the “fiscal cliff.”

Chief among those having a change of heart is U.S. Rep. Tom Petri. The Republican who has served Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District for more than 30 years signed the pledge in 1988, two years after Norquist created it.

But something happened on the way to the fiscal crisis du jour, in which the federal government faces automatic, across-the-board spending cuts and citizens confront tax hikes if Congress and President Obama can’t come to an agreement before the end of the year.

“He signed the tax pledge in 1988 and it was based on the situation at the time,” Petri press secretary Neil Wright said of his boss. “He had no idea that it would be considered to still be operative decades later. He wants to avoid tax increases, but ultimately the pledge that counts most for him is his Oath of Office.”

Pressed on whether that means Petri will vote for a fiscal cliff package that includes a tax increase, Wright said, “Yes.”

All the pledge-busting talk began en force a week or so ago when Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, S.C.; Peter King, N.Y.; Saxby Chambliss, Ga.; and Sen. Bob Corker, Tenn.; said they wouldn’t be bound by the “iron-clad” agreement. Graham said he would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans if Democrats worked to reform entitlements.

All six of Wisconsin’s GOP congressional representatives, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, have signed the taxpayer pledge.

Some have backed away from its all-or-nothing language.

U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Shorewood, recently re-elected to a second term, said last year the supercommittee charged with reining in the federal government’s $16 trillion-plus debt should keep all options on the table, including tax increases.

“I’m just going to make my pledge to the people of northeast Wisconsin,” Ribble said in November 2011, as quoted by Gannett newspapers. Ribble’s press office did not return a call from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment Monday.

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, who represents Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, pushes the GOP plan for revenue increases through closing loopholes, and “limiting deductions especially for higher income earners,” according to a statement from Duffy spokesman  John Gentzel.

“… So revenue is definitely on the table for the GOP,” Gentzel said in his email to Wisconsin Reporter. “But Democrats have to put real, immediate spending cuts on the table, too.”

Republican leadership on Monday sent a letter to the president criticizing the administration for a proposal that calls for $1.6 trillion in increased revenue, twice the amount Obama called for in his campaign. Johnson said the tax hike plan is on top of the $1 trillion in new taxes because of the Affordable Care Act, known by its critics as Obamacare.

The GOP counter-offer proposes $2.2 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade, including $800 billion from tax reform, $600 billion from Medicare reforms and other health savings, and $600 billion in other spending cuts, House GOP leadership aides said, as quoted by CNN.

No deal, the White House shot back.

“Until the Republicans in Congress are willing to get serious about asking the wealthiest to pay slightly higher tax rates, we won’t be able to achieve a significant, balanced approach to reduce our deficit,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.

Johnson, in an interview with Wisconsin Reporter on Monday, said he does not support tax increases, reiterating his line that the federal government doesn’t have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem. He calls proposed tax increases “punishing success.”

“The problem with punishing success by increasing tax rates is you put at risk the economic growth which is 10 times more effective,” the senator said, noting that a return to normal economic growth would boost federal revenue by about $750 billion a year, ten-fold compared to revenue generated by tax increases.

Johnson, too, said he supports ending loopholes and certain deductions to boost revenue.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, spent the summer running at the GOP vice presidential nominee on his House Budget Committee plan to reform entitlements and lower the debt. Critics have blasted the Ryan plan as draconian, but he doesn’t sound like he’s backing off on his tax pledge.

“He believes that candidates should say what they will do if elected, and if elected, do what they said,” Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert said in an emailed statement to Wisconsin Reporter.

“The national debt is growing unsustainably fast because government is spending too much and the economy is growing too slowly, not because tax rates are too low.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said he was anti-tax increase before the pledge was cool in conservative circles.

“I signed the Tax Payer Protection Pledge only because it reflected the same commitment I had already made to my constituents years before the pledge was a twinkle in Grover Norquist’s eye,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “I oppose hiking up tax rates that will hurt our economy and leave Americans with less of their hard-earned money.”

But Norquist’s pledge is getting fewer takers.

In the current 112th Congress, 238 representatives and 41 senators signed the pledge. The vast majority of the signers are Republican – three are Democrats, including two named Ben. In the upcoming 113th Congress, there are 219 representatives and 39 signers of the pledge, including 1 Democrat (the Bens are gone).

Late last week, 37 congressional Republicans said they would be ready to forsake the pledge and raise taxes if it meant resolving the fiscal crisis, according to the Gannett story.

Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said times change.

“You really cannot be held to a pledge forever. It isn’t something you’ve signed in blood and you’ll be damned into hell if you don’t do that,” Heim told Wisconsin Reporter. “People make the same kind of pledge when they get married – to death do us part. About a half of the marriages end up in divorce.”

But Mr. Norquist isn’t forgetting.

His organization has created an online petition to “let Pledge signers know that their constituents still expect them to uphold their written promise to oppose tax increases.”

“Make it clear that Washington’s top priority should be reducing federal spending, not raising taxes,” the organization’s website states.

Listen to Matt Kittle’s conversation with Sen. Johnson. Kittle and Johnson

Contact Matt Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

— Edited by John Trump at jtrump@watchdog.org

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.