Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) took to the House floor this morning to deliver a blistering critique of American for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.
The ongoing feud (see: here and here) between Norquist and Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) — over what, precisely, constitutes a “tax increase” — has been on the back burner for several months. But Wolf appeared poised to rekindle the debate.
“I want to be perfectly clear: I do not support raising taxes on the American people,” Wolf said. “My concern is with the other individuals, groups, and causes with whom Mr. Norquist is associated that have nothing to do with keeping taxes low.”
Wolf listed the following as concerns about Norquist’s personal associations:
“Simply put, I believe Mr. Norquist is connected with or has profited from a number of unsavory people and groups out of the mainstream,” Wolf said.
In regard to the ATR pledge, Wolf called it a “roadblock” to comprehensive tax reform. Taken together with Democrats’ obstinate refusal to consider major changes to entitlement programs, Wolf said, the pledge has helped to engender a political process that is “tragically shackled in ideological gridlock.”
“Everything must be on the table and I believe how the ‘pledge’ is interpreted and enforced by Mr. Norquist is a roadblock to realistically reforming our tax code,” he said. “Have we really reached a 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 referenced the Coburn-Norquist dispute that erupted this summer, when Coburn had called for the elimination of tax subsidies for ethanol producers, but because the senator did not propose any corresponding tax cuts to offset the new revenue that would be gained, Norquist accused Coburn of trying to raise taxes.
“Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of pledges — and I respect those differences — but the issue is with the interpreter and enforcer of a pledge,” Wolf said. “I understand that some may not agree with what I say today. I also know many are not aware of Mr. Norquist’s associations. But my conscience compels me to speak out.”
Wolf also filed a extensively detailed “statement of conscience” in the Congressional Record that he urged all of colleagues to read.
In an interview with National Review Online, Norquist responded to Wolf’s remarks, calling them “silly and childish.”
“He had a little hissy fit,” Norquist said. “He has been trying for years to get Republicans to endorse a massive tax increase like the one in Simpson-Bowles.”
Indeed, Wolf is a professed supporter of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission’s plan, though it was voted down by all three House Republicans serving on the panel, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), who, like Norquist, denounced it as a $2 trillion tax increase. Wolf has also supported a legislative proposal that would have established a similar debt commission and forced Congress to vote on its recommendations. Because Wolf advanced the idea when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, Norquist argues that the congressman’s proposed commission would have guaranteed a multi-trillion tax increase at least as big as the one recommended by Simpson-Bowles.
Regarding Wolf’s criticism of his personal associations, Norquist said the congressman probably “told an intern to go Google everything that some nutjob has ever said about me.”
Wolf’s criticism aside, Norquist argues that it has been a “tremendous” year for the ATR pledge. Lawmakers like Wolf and Coburn, who had insisted that Republicans could never get a Democratic Senate and White House to agree to significant spending cuts without raising taxes, have lost that argument. Over the course of recent budget battles, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) have both refused to consider tax increases, and in the end Democrats have agreed to more than $2.5 billion in spending restraint. “The pledge is infinitely stronger than it was a year ago,” Norquist said. “John Boehner was right, Wolf was wrong. Mitch McConnell was right, Wolf was wrong. The entire Republican Congress was right, Wolf was wrong.”
As a result of the GOP’s commitment to the pledge, Norquist said, they are well positioned to hold the House, retake the Senate, and possibly gain the White House by showing the American people that “we won’t raises your taxes.”
As for Wolf, Norquist added: “We’ll probably have some conversations with people in his district about this.”
UPDATE: Video of Rep. Wolf’s floor speech here.