Crashing the Ethanol Party

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Veronique: You might be right about the political impact of this fight, but you might inadvertently leave the impression that nasty language has been a monopoly of one side of it. Senator Coburn has repeatedly said that Norquist is adhering to a purist anti-tax position just to maximize his own power and therefore his lobbying business. The worst things that Norquist has said about Coburn is 1) that he is breaking a pledge he took and 2) that his goal is to advance a budget deal that repeals a lot of tax breaks without getting compensating tax cuts. The first claim is incontrovertibly true–something Jonah may be read as tacitly conceding–and the second claim is admitted, indeed proclaimed from the rooftops, by Coburn himself.

One thing Coburn and Norquist have in common with each other, but which separates both of them from some of Coburn’s fans on this issue, is that both of them understand that this debate goes way beyond ethanol. My sense is that many of the people who are cheering on Coburn on ethanol tax breaks would oppose a deal that, say, got rid of the mortgage-interest deduction and the tax exclusion for health insurance without cutting taxes by around the same amount. On the bigger question, that is, they would be with Norquist.

The challenge for these folks–and for all I know Jonah is one of them–is to articulate some principle that forbids big net tax increases but allows small ones. I don’t see how, politically, conservatives could ever have gotten the GOP to take a strong line against big net tax increases without doing basically what Norquist has done.

Maybe, though, that stance is a mistake, and Coburn is right on the big as well as the small issue. I can see an argument on either side. Taking Coburn’s position might be the only way to get a deal that includes serious spending cuts–or it might cause any deal to lean more heavily on revenue increases, and less on spending cuts, than conservatives should want. It’s a pity this argument has gotten so personal, but it will simply have to be argued out.