At around noon on December 2, Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Mike Crapo (R., Idaho) announced their intention to vote in favor of the final recommendations put forward by President Obama’s deficit commission.
Hours later, Americans for Tax Reform came out swinging. Via Twitter, ATR’s tax-policy director, Ryan Ellis, denounced Coburn and Crapo for supporting a “massive tax hike” and claimed that in doing so, the senators “admitted they lied about taxes to get elected.” Both were reelected last month, each receiving more than 70 percent of the vote.
Coburn, Crapo, and retiring GOP senator Judd Gregg (N.H.), who also backed the commission’s plan, signed ATR’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge to oppose “any and all tax increases.” Many conservatives have argued that the plan constitutes a huge tax increase, with some disagreement over the exact amount. ATR said it’s a $1.3 trillion tax hike over ten years. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said $2 trillion. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation said $3.3 trillion.
ATR president Grover Norquist promptly authored a letter to the three senators urging them to oppose Simpson-Bowles. “This report shifts the debate from where it properly should be — spending — and onto deficit reduction, and thereby tax increases,” he wrote. “I urge you to support a plan that is tax-revenue neutral.” When the issue came up during their joint press conference, Coburn and Crapo both rejected the idea that they were breaking the ATR pledge by voting for the commission’s proposal.
Conservative bloggers pushed the story — it being odd that a prominent fiscal hawk like Coburn, of all people, was the target of ATR’s scorn. National Review’s own Kevin Williamson, who has sparred with Ellis in the past, commented here. Coburn spokesman John Hart issued a sharply worded response to Ellis’s accusations, and Coburn told NRO’s Bob Costa that he “rejects” the idea that special-interest groups such as ATR would have much influence on the debate, and that his primary obligation was serving the country as a whole.
This week, Dick Morris got involved, penning a piece titled “3 GOP Senators Betray Us!” And Ellis posted “The Two Faces of Tom Coburn” on ATR’s website, once again accusing the Oklahoma Republican of lying to get elected. “Nobody ever said Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wasn’t a complex man,” Ellis wrote. “In fact, he’s so complex he managed to run in 2010 on one tax platform, and then completely and utterly abandon that position on taxes less than a month later.”
Many credited Norquist for spearheading the offensive. Indeed, most headlines read “Coburn vs. Norquist,” or some variant thereof. But when I spoke to Norquist on Monday, he had only positive things to say about Coburn and Crapo. In fact, Norquist said he had spoken privately with both senators and was satisfied that their support for Simpson-Bowles was not a blatant violation of the ATR tax pledge. Senate aides confirmed the conversations. “I don’t believe either of those gentlemen want to vote for tax increases,” Norquist said, adding: “Gregg might agree to tax increases; I don’t care, he’s leaving.”
Norquist did, however, have plenty of criticism for the commission itself, particularly what he said was a misguided emphasis on reducing the deficit. He wished the commission had focused exclusively on cutting spending, which he said is the real problem. If it had, then Democrats wouldn’t have been able to push for higher taxes under the guise of deficit reduction. “Why would we walk away from an election where everyone said spend less . . . into a zone where Democrats can play equally well, which is the deficit zone?” he asked.
But he doesn’t think Coburn is a betrayer of the cause. “Coburn’s been a hero on spending,” Norquist said, and in his view, that’s the area Republicans should emphasize going forward. “The best thing we can do is to not spend the money that Obama plans to spend.” Ultimately, he thought, Republicans should be mostly satisfied with the plan as a starting point, given the numerous concessions forced upon Democrats in areas such as entitlement spending and tax reform.
That sounds awfully similar to the arguments Coburn and Crapo made. Coburn clearly stated that the commission’s plan was a starting point, and he supported it in order to advance a conversation that is urgently needed in Washington. “If we pass this bill tomorrow, it doesn’t get us out of the woods,” Coburn said. “It only cuts $4 trillion. We need to cut $10 [trillion].” But that did not mean he would vote for the plan if it came before the Senate in its current form. And apparently, that’s an assurance Norquist can live with.
So, conservative crisis averted? Controversy over? Perhaps. Or maybe there was never much of a conflict to begin with, at least as far as Coburn and Norquist are concerned. Ellis, who did not return a request for comment, might feel differently, although he hasn’t mentioned Coburn’s name in a couple of days. One senior Senate aide familiar with the situation told NRO that the whole episode was pretty bizarre. “Who’s in charge over there?” the aide asked.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin fellow.
UPDATE: John Kartch, communications director for Americans for Tax Reform, sends along the following response:
You say in the piece that Grover’s letter of Thursday, December 2nd was authored by Ryan Ellis. In fact, it was authored and signed by Grover. From the beginning, Grover pled with Senators Coburn, Crapo, and Gregg to reject the commission report because it contained a massive net tax hike which violated their promise to voters and took the focus away from spending cuts. Grover’s position hasn’t changed from the beginning, and is consistent with Ryan’s actions on behalf of ATR.
The piece has been changed accordingly. A copy of ATR’s letter to Sen. Coburn can be found here. NRO regrets the error.