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Republicans are fighting about taxes. But they’re fighting with each other, not Democrats. I’ve already written about this topic once, but the issue has become more heated, and the stakes have become much larger. And this time I’m going to focus on the political implications.

First, some background. One side of this battle is led by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who is the organizer of the no-tax-increase pledge. Grover argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending and that higher taxes are economically and politically foolish.

The other side of the conflict is led by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much red ink and that higher taxes are a necessary price to strike a deal with Democrats that supposedly will reduce budget deficits.

The first  skirmish in this fight involved ethanol tax credits. Senator Coburn wanted to get rid of the credit, which everyone agrees is economically destructive and fundamentally corrupt.

But there’s a catch. when you get rid a tax preference, even an odious one, that means the government gets more money. In other words a tax increase. Senator Coburn has no problem with that outcome.

Grover Norquist says that all of the arguments against ethanol are correct, but he says that any proposal to get rid of the credit should be accompanied by a tax cut of equal magnitude.

If the ethanol credit is worth about $6 billion per year, as Senator Coburn’s office states, then find a tax cut of similar size, pair it with the ethanol credit, and kill two birds with one stone. Seems like the best of all possible outcomes, which is why Grover is correct from a policy perspective.

The fight over the ethanol credit may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but it was symbolically important – particularly since it is a precursor for the much bigger fight about whether GOPers should agree to a budget deal with Democrats.

Indeed, this may already be happening as part of the “Gang of Six” negotiations, with Senator Coburn and two other Republican Senators joining three Democrats in putting together some sort of grand compromise (presumably something similar to what was proposed by Obama’s Fiscal Commission).

In this case, the tax increase could be enormous, well over $1 trillion. No wonder this battle is getting heated. Here are some excerpts from a recent story in the Washington Post.

Republicans are feuding over whether to abandon the party’s long-held opposition to higher taxes in pursuit of a deficit-cutting deal with Democrats. …both sides say this cuts to the core of a quandary for the GOP: Will the cause of trimming deficits run aground on the conservative principle that the government must not increase the amount of money it takes in through taxes? …“If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk,” Coburn said in an interview. “I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?” Norquist…argues that bipartisan deals struck by Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990, both of which entailed increased taxes, resulted in bigger government rather than spending cuts that both men thought they had secured. “This is a fantasy on the part of the liberal Democrats that the Republicans would be stupid enough to repeat 1990 and throw away a winning hand politically,” Norquist said.

As the excerpt correctly acknowledges, this issue deals with both economics and politics. From an economic perspective, there are all sorts of important issues:

1. What is better for the economy, lower spending or higher taxes?

2. Is it possible to balance the budget without higher taxes?

3. Would tax increases be used for deficit reduction or more spending?

But I covered these issues in my earlier post, so lets’ look at the political implications. Grover asked, in the Washington Post article, “Why would you elect a Republican Senate if they just sat down with Obama and raised everyone’s taxes?” And I was quoted about how abandoning the no-tax-hike position would heavily damage the GOP.

How the debate among Republicans is resolved in the coming weeks will play a large role in determining whether a grand bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction is possible. “There’s a significant split over whether to put taxes on the table,” said Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute and a Norquist ally. Mitchell said the disagreement largely pits House and Senate Republicans against each other and gives Democrats a potential political edge. “Obama has it within his power to drive a big wedge between House and Senate GOP-ers and turn the tax issue from something that works on behalf of Republicans into something that works against them,” he said.

To elaborate on the last point, the no-tax-increase pledge helps the GOP because it sends a signal to all voters that they will not be raped and pillaged (at least in excess of what is happening now).

This puts Democrats in a tough position. They can play the politics of class warfare (as Obama likes to do) and say only the “rich” will pay higher taxes, but voters don’t dislike their upper-income neighbors. Moreover, they probably suspect that Democrats have a very broad definition of what counts as rich, so they instinctively gravitate to the GOP position. After all, the only sure way of avoiding a tax hike on yourself is to oppose tax hikes for everyone.

If Republicans put tax increases on the table, however, the politics get turned upside down. Instead of being united against all tax increases, voters realize somebody is going to get mugged and they have an incentive to make sure they’re not the ones who get victimized.

That’s when soak-the-rich taxes become very appealing. Democrats, for all intents and purposes, can appeal to average voters by targeting the so-called rich. And even though voters will be skeptical about what Democrats really want, they don’t want to be the primary target of the political predators in Washington.

Think of it this way. You’re a wildebeest running away from a pack of hyenas, but you know one member of your herd will get caught and killed. You despise hyenas, but at that critical moment, you’re main goal is wanting another member of the herd to bite the dust.

This is why surrendering to tax increases put Republicans in a no-win situation. They oppose class-warfare taxes because they understand the disproportionately damaging impact of higher top income tax rates and increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains. So when GOPers get bullied into agreeing to raise taxes, they want to target less destructive sources of revenue. But that usually means that taxes that are more likely to hit the middle class.

Needless to say, Democrats almost always win if there is a fight on whether to tax the middle class or to tax the rich.

Senator Coburn’s heart is in the right place, but he is creating a win-win situation for Democrats. By putting taxes on the table, he is giving Democrats a policy victory and a political victory.

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Thanks to demographics and ill-conceived entitlement programs, America is on a path to becoming a bankrupt European-style welfare state. We know how to fix this problem, but whether we make the necessary reforms depends on the heart and soul of the GOP.

Are Republicans a bunch of hard-right Tea Party types, salivating at the thought of reversing the welfare state and ushering a new ear of limited government?

Or are GOPers a bunch of political hacks who have decided the cesspool of Washington is really a hot tub and merely pretend to be fiscally conservative to appease the conservative base?

The answer is yes and yes.

More specifically, almost all politicians are some combination of these two descriptions.  It’s almost like they have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

They usually have some underlying principles, and they would like to do the right thing and make America a better place.

Yet they also want to get reelected and accumulate power, and this lures them into casting votes that they know are bad for the country.

Sometimes the devil has the most influence. During the Bush years, for instance, most Republicans on Capitol Hill went along with Bush’s bad proposals, such as the no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, the prescription drug entitlement, the corrupt farm bills, the pork-filled transportation bills, and the TARP bailout. The lawmakers will admit, especially in private, that those were bad votes, but they “went along to get along.”

Yet every so often the angel gets control. All Republicans, including the ones who were in office and doing the wrong thing during the Bush years, presumably are going to vote for Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget later this week, which would limit the growth of federal spending and fundamentally reform Medicare and Medicaid. And they’ll cast that vote even though they’ll get demagogued in 2012.

So what decides whether the angel or devil is in charge? I may not have learned much in my 25 years in Washington, but I think a key factor is that politicians are often willing to take political risks and do the right thing if they think there’s actually a chance of implementing good policy.

In other words, there is a chance of saving America. I think Republicans can be convinced to charge the machine gun nests of big government. But we need to create the right set of circumstances – and that means persuading them that the long-run policy benefits will offset the short-run political risks.

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Yesterday, I analyzed how the GOP should fight the budget battle, but I may have made a big mistake. I assumed the Republican leadership actually wanted to do the right thing. I thought they learned the right lessons from the disastrous Bush years, and that the GOP no longer would be handmaidens for big government. And I naively assumed that the Republican leadership would not betray the base and stab the Tea Party in the back.

Unfortunately, if this Washington Post story is accurate, that may be what is happening.

Having difficulty finding consensus within their own ranks, House Republican leaders have begun courting moderate Democrats on several key fiscal issues, including a deal to avoid a government shutdown at the end of next week. The basic outline would involve more than $30 billion in cuts for the 2011 spending package, well short of the $61 billion initially demanded by freshman Republicans and other conservatives, according to senior aides in both parties. Such a deal probably would be acceptable to Senate leaders and President Obama as long as the House didn’t impose funding restrictions on certain social and regulatory programs supported by Democrats, Senate and administration aides said.

Having been in Washington for 25 years, I’m not blind to reality. I knew it was never going to be possible to get all $61 billion of cuts. At some point, there would be a compromise. And I also was aware that the GOP “riders” – such as blocking Obamacare, curtailing the EPA’s power grab, and defunding the leeches at Planned Parenthood – were an uphill battle.

But I thought the GOP leadership would fight and get a decent deal rather than unilaterally surrender. If the Washington Post report is true and Republicans act like the French army, it will discourage the base and cause a rift with the Tea Party. So it’s dumb politics and dumb policy.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed, though, and hope this is just a trial balloon that quickly will be shot down.

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I posted yesterday about the stunning political incompetence of Republican Senators, who reportedly are willing to give Obama an increase in the debt limit in exchange for a vote (yes, just a vote) on a balanced budget amendment.

As I explained, there is no way they can get the necessary two-thirds support to approve an amendment, so why trade a meaningless and symbolic vote on a BBA for meaningful and real approval of more borrowing authority for Obama? My analogy yesterday was that this was like trading a all-star baseball player for a utility infielder in the minor leagues.

I did acknowledge that forcing a vote on a BBA was a worthwhile endeavor, but said that the GOP has that power anyhow, so why trade away something valuable to get something you already can get for free?

Little did I realize that Republicans already did force a vote on the balanced budget amendment. Less than one month ago, on March 2, Senator Lee of Utah got a vote on a “Sense of the Senate” resolution in favor of a balanced budget amendment. Senator Lee’s resolution was approved by a 58-40 margin, which is nice, but an actual amendment would need a two-thirds supermajority, so this test vote demonstrated that there is no way to approve an amendment this year.

I’m glad Senator Lee proposed his resolution. I’m glad Senators were forced to go on the record.

But I’m mystified, flabbergasted, and stunned that Republicans apparently are willing to give Obama a bigger debt limit in exchange for something they already got.

This would be like the Yankees giving Derek Jeter to the Red Sox in exchange for a player they already have, such as Alex Rodriguez. I imagine New York sportswriters would be dumbfounded by such stupidity and would rip the team’s management to shreds. So that gives you an idea of how I feel about what’s happening in Washington.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’ll soon write about the fiscal reforms GOPer should demand in exchange for a higher debt limit.

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The old joke in Washington is that Democrats are the evil party and Republicans are the stupid party (which is why you should guard your wallet and freedom whenever you hear talk of “bipartisanship”).

The GOP definitely is doing what it can to prove that at least one side of that joke is true. Republicans are actually talking about letting the debt limit increase in exchange for a vote on a balanced budget amendment.

Yes, you read correctly. They’re not talking about an increase in the debt limit in exchange for a balanced budget, or more borrowing authority in exchange for passage of a balanced budget amendment. Instead, they will roll over for the very low price of simply getting a vote on a proposed amendment.

Here’s a passage from a report in Human Events.

The Senate Republicans are preparing to tell President Obama that they want a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the Constitution passed in Congress in exchange for raising the statuary debt ceiling above $14.2 trillion. “My hope is that we would force a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment as a condition to voting on the debt ceiling,” Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) told HUMAN EVENTS.  “By next week, or shortly thereafter, we will have all 47 Republicans unified behind the effort, and then begin to reach out to our Democratic colleagues.”

To understand the foolishness of this approach, here’s all you need to know.

1. If Republicans really want to force a vote on a balanced budget amendment, they basically have that ability already. The rules of the Senate give individual Senators considerable ability to disrupt ordinary business and force votes on motions that at the very least would be proxies for a BBA. And if all 47 Republicans really want to make a stink, they can grind the Senate to a halt and demand an up-or-down vote on a specific amendment.

In other words, Republicans are about to give the democrats something that they really want – an increase in the debt limit – in exchange for a vote that they could get anyhow.

2. More important, what makes them think it is a good deal to give Obama more borrowing authority in exchange for something that, at best, is symbolic? Everyone knows that there is zero chance of getting the necessary two-thirds vote to approve a balanced budget amendment.

That’s not an argument against having a vote (particularly if the BBA is well-written with real limits on taxes and the size of government), but it definitely is not a smart negotiating strategy. It’s sort of akin to trading a power-hitting all-star for a minor league utility player.

Fiscal conservatives should demand substance, not symbolism, in exchange for a higher debt limit. I’ll put forth a few ideas in next few days.

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A large number of Democrats voted with Republicans in the House yesterday to pass a two-week spending bill that includes $4 billion in cuts compared to what Obama requested. This is a modest victory for the GOP since they can truthfully claim that they are on target to impose the equivalent of $100 billion of cuts over a full fiscal year.

And it appears the Senate will go along with the House proposal, as reported today by the Washington Post.

The deal, which eliminates dozens of earmarks and a handful of little-known programs that President Obama has identified as unnecessary, sailed through the House on a 335 to 91 vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who initially resisted including any cuts in a short-term funding extension, predicted that it will pass that chamber as early as Wednesday.

Some people correctly note that a $4 billion cut is trivial since government spending has ballooned by $2 trillion during the Bush-Obama spending binge – especially since at least some of the supposed spending cut is based on the dishonest Washington practice of measuring “cuts” on the basis of how much Obama wanted to spend rather than nominal changes from one year to the next. Nonetheless, it is a very positive development that the conversation has shifted from “how much should spending be increased?” to “how much should spending be cut?”

That being said, the battle is far from over. Indeed, the GOP began the 1995 shutdown fight in good shape. As I explained in a recent National Review article, a significant number of congressional Democrats sided with Republicans and it appeared that Clinton was on the defensive.

But GOPers ultimately did not get everything they wanted that year, in part because Clinton and the Democrats were able to regroup when the government was temporarily re-opened for a three-week period. Democrats today presumably view the current two-week agreement as a similar opportunity to make a short-term tactical retreat in hopes of winning bigger battles in the future (not just the fight over FY2011 spending levels, but also the upcoming FY2012 budget resolution debate and the debt limit conflict in June or July).

In other words, Republicans should be very careful about having their energy dissipated by a series of diversionary battles over short-run spending bills. At the very least, they need to insist that all such bills include pro-rated spending cuts to fulfill their promise of reducing Obama’s request by $100 billion.

At some point, perhaps when the two-week agreement expires, Democrats will balk at that tiny level of fiscal discipline. And if Republicans also hold firm, this means a government shutdown. Obama and Reid will imply this is somehow the fault of the GOP, but the Washington Post story suggests that recycling the 1995 strategy may not be very successful for the left.

Republicans bore the brunt of the blame that time. A Washington Post poll released this week suggested that this time, voters would apportion fault about equally to both parties. What has changed? The state of the economy is far more precarious than it was in the mid-1990s, the deficit is 10 times as large, and the public’s confidence in elected officials is even lower. …But if the politics of a shutdown are in many ways more treacherous than they were in 1995, the actual effects of one would probably be less disruptive. Indeed, so many things have now been declared essential services that the government might “shut down” without most Americans noticing much difference. As happened in 1995, air traffic controllers would still watch the skies. And a wider swath of military, diplomatic and national security personnel would stay on the job to deal with concerns in a post-9/11 world. …Therein lies the paradox under all the talk of a shutdown. Privately, some Democrats say they fear that a closure that barely affects the daily lives of most Americans could bolster conservatives’ argument that much of what the government does is unnecessary.

The final sentence of this excerpt is key. Would anybody (other than interest groups with snouts in federal trough) notice or care if the Department of Housing and Urban Development was shut down? Is anybody going to lose sleep if the Department of Energy is in hibernation?

In other words, a “government shutdown” would reveal that most of the “non-essential” parts of government are not necessary in the short run or the long run.

This is why Republicans, if they are reasonably astute, hold the upper hand in the current negotiations. They should speak softly and sound reasonable, but carry the big stick of a shutdown in order to ensure that the spending cut target for FY2011 spending is not eroded. And if they prevail, that will have a very positive carryover effect on the looming fights on the FY2012 budget resolution as well as the debt limit.

One final comment about the Washington Post report. The story asserts, in the excerpt below, that Clinton had fiscal credibility because he imposed a tax increase in 1993. But as I have already explained, that tax increase was a miserable failure and even Clinton’s own OMB forecast, made 18 months after the tax increase was adopted, showed permanent deficits of more than $200 billion.

Obama, who has overseen an expansion in spending, does not have the fiscal credibility that helped give President Bill Clinton the winning political hand in 1995 and 1996. Clinton invested significant political capital in reducing the deficit, first by passing his 1993 economic package, which included tax increases.

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When existing spending authority expires on March 4, the “non-essential” parts of the federal government will shut down unless Republicans and Democrats reach an agreement. This is causing lots of agitation in Washington, both by Democrats who don’t want the money spigots in the off position and Republicans who fret that they will be blamed for (gasp) gridlock.

I have a new piece at National Review that explains how the GOP can win this fight. Indeed, I explain that Republicans actually did a pretty good job during the 1995 fight, even though they now have negative memories of the experience. This excerpt provides my basic assessment, but the full article has lots of additional information, including quotes from news accounts in 1995 showing that the GOP held the upper hand, as well as four specific recommendation of how advocates of limited government can do even better this year.

With the GOP-led House and the Democratic Senate and White House far apart on a measure to pay the federal government’s bills past March 4, Washington is rumbling toward a repeat of the 1995 government-shutdown fight (actually two shutdown fights, one in mid-November of that year and the other in mid-December).

This makes some Republicans nervous. They think Bill Clinton “won” the blame game that year, and they’re afraid they will get the short end of the stick if there is a 1995-type impasse this year.

A timid approach, though, is a recipe for failure. It means that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can sit on their hands, make zero concessions, and wait for the GOP to surrender any time a deadline approaches.

In other words, budget hawks in the House have no choice. They have to fight.

But they can take comfort in the fact that this is not a suicide mission. The conventional wisdom about what happened in November of 1995 is very misleading.

Republicans certainly did not suffer at the polls. They lost only nine House seats, a relatively trivial number after a net gain of 54 in 1994. They actually added to their majority in the Senate, picking up two seats in the 1996 cycle.

More important, they succeeded in dramatically reducing the growth of federal spending. They did not get everything they wanted, to be sure, but government spending grew by just 2.9 percent during the first four years of GOP control, helping to turn a $164 billion deficit in 1995 into a $126 billion surplus in 1999. And they enacted a big tax cut in 1997.

If that’s what happens when Republicans are defeated, I hope the GOP loses again this year.

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