Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has quit the charade that we can simply cut our way out of the national debt. Having committed the Capitol offense of honesty, Coburn — one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress — must be punished, of course. And that's where Grover Norquist comes in.
Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, has made it his life's work to pressure Republican politicians into signing a pledge that they will never, ever raise taxes. He has famously said his mission is to shrink government to a "size where we can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." His ultimate aim is to prevent the "Holocaust" — his word — that would engulf America's persecuted wealthy if their taxes were raised.
Virtually every Republican signs Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Coburn signed it, too, before he deviated from Republican orthodoxy and joined the Senate's bipartisan "gang of six," which is seeking to develop a compromise plan to reduce the deficit. By working with Democrats, and seeking to solve the problem rather than use it as another rationale to cut taxes, Coburn is now a pariah off "by his lonesome," Norquist says.
A plainspoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Coburn honored a pledge to leave his House seat after six years. He won re-election to the Senate in 2010 with 71 percent of the vote. He's known for placing holds on legislation he opposes and for speaking his mind on tough issues.
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While Norquist works to isolate Coburn from the Republican caucus, lest the truth contagion spread, the Oklahoman is looking to do the same to Norquist.
Coburn is supporting an end to ethanol subsidies: $6 billion in annual tax expenditures that benefit agribusiness, not the public. The savings would help pay down the debt. To Norquist, this represents a violation of the sacred anti-tax pledge. In Norquist's church, if revoking a tax loophole, no matter how indefensible, causes someone's taxes to rise, then it must be opposed. And if you do close one loophole, you must open another of equal or greater value.
His position makes responsible public policy impossible — which is what Coburn is eager to expose.
What really burns Norquist is that a Republican stalwart such as Coburn would fall for the promises of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate's gang of six. Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Mark Warner of Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, says Norquist, have "never voted to cut spending in the history of their lives." Coburn, he says, is foolish to believe that his Democratic colleagues are negotiating spending cuts in good faith.
Coburn defines the debt crisis as a "disease" that career politicians are afraid to treat. He's not advocating legislated tax increases. He's arguing for deep spending cuts along with tax reform that raises revenue by ending corporate welfare for well-connected interests. In a Senate speech on April 5, he said, "My taxes are going to go up. Sorry, they are going to go up." Appearing on TV days later, Coburn went beyond ethanol subsidies and put $700 billion in annual tax expenditures on the table.
All of this violates Norquist's faith, which has dominated Republican politics for decades. Although Coburn has yet to cast a vote to raise revenue, Norquist insists the senator is guilty of "lying to the voters of Oklahoma." It's a harsh thing to say about a politician's relationship to his constituents. Coming from Norquist, though, Coburn just might take it as a compliment.