Two of Wyoming’s three Republicans in Congress have signed a pledge to never raise taxes. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge is vilified by critics who say its sponsor, Grover Norquist, now controls the Republican Party when it comes to tax policy. Correspondent Matt Laslo reports that those two Wyoming lawmakers are now moving away from the Pledge.
MATT LASLO: Grover Norquist isn’t a household name. He’s never been elected to public office… just some conservative boards, like the National Rifle Association and others. But Norquist is viewed as a powerhouse in Washington. He’s gotten two hundred and thirty eight House members and forty one senators to sign his pledge to never raise taxes. Only thirteen Republicans in Congress, including Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, have refused to sign it. In a speech to conservative activists this year where Norquist called liberals “parasites” he also reaffirmed his vision for the U-S tax code.
GROVER NORQUIST: Our job is to say “no” to tax increases, stop throwing money in the center of the table, put our foot on the air hose, and watch that pile of money begin to decline.”
LASLO: That’s the vision embodied in the Pledge – deviate from it by supporting higher taxes and conservative activists will turn on you, opening you up to a primary challenge. Critics say the so called super committee failed to cut trillions of dollars from the national debt because Republicans wouldn’t accept enough tax increases to appease the president. Will the G-O-P be willing to budge on taxes in the next round of that debate…after this year’s elections? Yes, if it’s up to some Wyoming Republicans. Congress woman Cynthia Lummis signed the Pledge, but now she’s distancing herself from it.
REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: I’m more concerned and afraid of the debt and the deficit than I am of slightly higher taxes or lower spending.
Lummis is already on record supporting a broad compromise to cut the debt, which included savings by assuming tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would expire. And Lummis isn’t alone in distancing herself from the Pledge to never raise taxes. Wyoming’s senior senator, Mike Enzi, is also bucking Grover Norquist. He points to one policy area in particular where he says a tax increase is an absolute necessity.
SEN. MIKE ENZI: I don’t know how we’re going to have highways if we don’t increase the gas tax. That’s a user fee. You don’t want to pay it, you don’t use it. So we’re going to have to do some things like that if we’re going to have the kind of America that we expect.
LASLO: While Enzi signed the Pledge in the past, he says Norquist isn’t offering policy solutions, just ideological rigidity at a time of national need. That makes Enzi willing to stand up to him.
ENZI: Well Grover Norquist hasn’t suggested how we’re going to build highways. Right now what we’re doing is stealing from private pension fund insurance over a 10 year period to build two years worth of highways. In two years what are we going to do for revenue?
LASLO: The one Wyoming lawmaker who hasn’t signed the Pledge is the one who seems to cling to the ideology behind it most closely. John Barrasso was tapped by former Governor Dave Freudenthal (free-den-thal) to fill a vacant Senate seat. He’s never really been challenged since then and Barrasso says he doesn’t need the Pledge.
SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: My record speaks for itself. I’m not somebody that votes to raise taxes.
LASLO: Still, Barrasso says there isn’t much sunlight between him and Grover Norquist.
BARRASSO: I have not signed that pledge, but I’m opposed to raising taxes. Our problem isn’t that we’re taxed too little it’s that we as a country spend too much and until we get the spending under control we’re not going to adequately address the major issues facing the country.”
LASLO: Thomas Mann is a senior fellow with the think tank the Brookings Institution. He says in many ways Norquist’s Pledge has become the ticket for admission to today’s Republican tent.
THOMAS MANN: He’s not personally powerful but his tax pledge has become the signature feature, I call it the Holy Grail of the contemporary Republican Party and keeps it from playing any constructive role in putting the country’s finances in order.
LASLO: At the start of the next Congress economists are hoping lawmakers in both parties can forge a broad compromise to cut the nation’s debt. All eyes will be on Republicans, especially the eyes of Grover Norquist. And Norquist may not be too happy with what he sees from at least two Wyoming Republicans.
For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.