‘One person’s demand for ideological purity’

In his speech to a joint session of Congress last month, President Obama chided congressional Republicans, noting, “I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live.”

There wasn’t much doubt as to what the president was referring to. Grover Norquist’s pledge has been signed by nearly every Republican in Washington, vowing never to support any tax increases on anyone by any amount at any time. It’s a straightjacket that makes policymaking in Washington — at a time of high deficits and desperate need for public investments — nearly impossible.

Once in a while, even some GOP lawmakers get sick of it.

In an unusually public display of dissension in GOP ranks, Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) lashed out at antitax advocate Grover Norquist, charging that he abuses his position as sponsor of a no-new-taxes pledge.

The comments in a House floor speech Tuesday marked a flare-up in a long-simmering feud between Mr. Norquist and some lawmakers who chafe at his perceived influence. […]

In his lengthy remarks, Mr. Wolf accused Mr. Norquist and ATR of improperly profiting from their position, and also blocking reform of tax loopholes and special deductions that are draining federal coffers.

“I … believe Mr. Norquist has used the ATR ‘pledge’ as leverage to advance other issues many Americans would find inappropriate, and when taken as a whole, should give people pause,” Mr. Wolf said.

Also of interest, Wolf made note of Norquist’s associations with “unsavory” characters and his role in the Abramoff lobbying scandal.

But Wolf’s larger point is that Norquist has effectively “paralyzed Congress,” making it impossible to even eliminate useless tax loopholes, and the congressman is entirely right. Remember, the Washington Post talked to Norquist at some length over the summer, and he conceded that Republicans are expected to protect tax breaks that even GOP officials “view as bad public policy.” (Even Jonah Goldberg said at the time, “I’m sorry but that’s nuts.”)

The problem, though, is that Wolf’s criticism is quite rare. Sen. Tom Coburn (R), a far-right senator from Oklahoma, has had some related run-ins with Norquist over similar issues, but in general, Republicans don’t complain about the pledge because they like it. If given a choice between (a) governing and solving policy challenges; and (b) refusing to raise any tax by any amount, the vast majority of GOP officials prefer the latter. It’s not even close.

To clarify, Wolf isn’t exactly a New England moderate. In general, the Virginian doesn’t even want to consider tax increases, a point he emphasized yesterday. Wolf simply appears to believe that tax reform is important and some existing loopholes and subsidies should be on the table as part of a larger compromise.

“Have we really reached the point where one person’s demand for ideological purity is paralyzing Congress to the point that even a discussion of tax reform is viewed as breaking a no-tax pledge?” Wolf asked.

Most of Wolf’s party has an answer to that question: yes, we really have reached that point.