Politics & Policy

Corker’s Carrots and Sticks

Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.)
The GOP’s last, best hope? Or just its last?

On Monday morning, the low-key Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who has been quietly climbing the ranks in the Senate GOP caucus, accidentally kicked off one of those news weeks where everyone says the words “Grover Norquist” a lot, when he told Charlie Rose that he’s “not obligated” to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge he signed as a candidate in 2005.

Here’s the thing: Corker didn’t think he was making news. In fact, as far as he was concerned, he had already broken the pledge — in 2011, when he voted to end ethanol tax breaks without offsetting tax reductions elsewhere, a move Norquist considered a breach. Grover reminded Corker at the time that the senator’s pledge wasn’t to Norquistians, but to Tennesseans. Corker agreed, which is why he wore his ethanol vote loud and proud, and why he repeated Monday what he said in 2011, that the only “pledge” he was bound to was his oath of office.

#ad#That might explain why the newly unveiled $4.5 trillion “fiscal cliff” fix Corker’s office spent the last year crafting offers new tax revenue, making it — at least for those who are in the strict-constructionist rather than the “Living Pledge” school of ATR hermeneutics — the senator’s second act of tax heresy in the last two years. The plan might also be the most viable going option for the GOP.

First, the bad news: There’s roughly a trillion in new revenue in Corker’s plan. About $250 billion comes from reforming the way Social Security benefits are calculated. The other $750 billion comes from a $50,000 cap on itemized deductions, which would increase the tax bills of some Americans — most of them higher earners. There’s some bad news on the spending side, too: It counts scheduled cuts from the debt-limit deal and war spending that wasn’t going to happen anyway in its $3.528 trillion in cuts.

But it also contains real meat, including $400 billion in belt-tightening in the federal work force (expanding the current hiring freeze and reining in federal-employee benefits) and, most significantly, more than $700 billion in savings obtained from full-spectrum entitlement reform: enrollment-age increases, tighter growth formulae, means-testing, and a strong, market-driven alternative to fee-for-service Medicare that alone is expected to save $290 billion over ten years.

Any of this sound familiar? As I put it in the Corner, it looks like Romney’s tax plan made flesh and dwelling among us. But, as Ross Douthat pointed out, that’s not exactly right, since Romney’s tax plan also came with across-the-board 20 percent rate cuts. So it’s probably more accurate to say Corker’s plan is Romney’s plan made flesh with more plausible math and greater respect for political constraints.

I asked Corker if he thought that the Romney-Ryan ticket’s running on this combination of entitlement reform and new revenue through deduction caps made it politically safe for him to take a similar approach.

“Sure. Romney talked about it. Boehner has alluded to it. And, for what it’s worth, I know Democrats who like it just fine,” Corker told me from his Hill offices. “The goal was to lay out a plan that had both Democratic — but obviously Republican — sensibilities that showed that it’s much easier to go ahead and make the decisions that need to be made now versus just ‘negotiating a framework’ and setting up another fiscal cliff down the line.”

Corker has shared the bill with Senate and House leadership, but he has no illusions that his caucus is going to rally around it.

“This is not to inject ourselves into the negotiations. We realize that the deal that is going to happen will be between exactly two people: Obama and Boehner. . . . There’s nothing that’s going to happen on the Senate floor — I don’t think — that matters,” he says. “We wrote this bill to do nothing but point out to the only two people that matter that anything short of solving this problem is a complete failure.”

#page#Now, Corker might be overselling a bit. Such are our fiscal woes that taking a four-and-a-half-trillion-dollar bite out of the debt gets us roughly a quarter of the way home. So it’d be closer to right if Corker said that anything short of starting in earnest to solve the problem would be a failure. But you might think that only massive deficit reduction will do, and that the Republicans ought to offer dead-weight resistance to any plan that doesn’t, say, balance the budget over ten years or fundamentally restructure the size and shape of the federal government. Or you might think that the Republicans should back only a Band-Aid, do just enough to avert catastrophe (again) and wait for 2013 or 2015 to take another shot under more favorable conditions. And if you think either of those things, you probably don’t think Corker’s approach is the best thing going.

#ad#But as a starting point for negotiations, the Corker plan has a lot to recommend it. Most critically, it meets the Democrats’ sine qua non of concentrating tax hikes on wealthier taxpayers. But it does so while making the Bush tax rates a permanent feature of the tax code, instead of the ever-expiring creatures of “reconciliation” gimmickry they currently are. This simple change will avert the regularly scheduled crises we’ve enjoyed for the last four years. It will mean Democrats can’t raise taxes in the future through mere inaction. It will dramatically simplify the twisted ways we talk about taxes (you’ll spend far less time explaining to your friends the difference between “current law” and “current policy”). And if you think that perpetuating the myth that raising rates on the rich will solve our problems is more pernicious than actually raising rates on the rich, the Corker approach will deny Democrats a cheap psychological and rhetorical victory. New revenue through limiting deductions can be plausibly sold as part of broader tax-code reform, not a capitulation on the overloaded question of whether the “rich” are paying their “fair share.” In the conservative long-game, having the first conversation instead of the second matters, big time.

Corker’s approach has another, perhaps decisive, advantage: It exists.

Despite having lived with, and indeed courted, the impending doom of December 31, 2012, for nigh on two years, both sides are still, in Corker’s words, “negotiating platitudes.” By contrast, Corker’s got a bill in hand: 242 pages of “leg language,” as he puts it (the first word pronounced like the first syllable in “legislative,” not like the appendage), CBO-scored and ready to roll out. This puts Corker one up on “the only two people who matter.” By last accounting, White House advisers were telling Politico that the two sides are engaged in a staring contest over who’ll be first to even propose a spending-cuts package. With the clock winding down, any “grand bargain” will need a template. Anything with Paul Ryan’s name on it will be quarantined for cooties by Democrats. Simpson-Bowles is the dead parrot everyone in Washington praises before disowning. Corker’s plan may not be perfect, but in the desert that gives way to the fiscal cliff, it might have to do.

— Daniel Foster is National Review Online’s news editor.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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