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Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Paul Ryan, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Republicans are making a lot of noise about being willing to violate Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, but if you take a moment to think through what they mean by violating that pledge, it starts to become clear that we'd be better off if they didn't violate it.

Take Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), for example:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has joined a handful of prominent Republican lawmakers willing to break their pledge to oppose all tax increases.

“I’m not obligated on the pledge,” Corker told CBS’s Charlie Rose on Monday morning. “I made Tennesseans aware, I was just elected, the only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve, when I’m sworn in this January.”

At the same time, Corker has proposed his own fiscal cliff deal that caps deductions but does not raise tax rates. Norquist’s pledge bars any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits without a matching tax cut.

The thing you have to remember is that under current law, tax rates automatically go up on everybody starting January 1, 2013. Congress could choose to extend tax cuts past that point, but if they don't do anything, rates are going up. That means tax rates will increase without anybody being asked to take a vote that would violate Grover Norquist's precious pledge. The law is already in place. Norquist's pledge is irrelevant.

The immediate question is whether to extend tax cuts on all income below $250,000. That wouldn't be a tax hike on the wealthy—it would be a tax cut for everybody, relative to current law. Even the wealthy would benefit. Democrats support these tax cuts. Republicans say they do, but so far haven't been willing to vote in favor of the Senate legislation extending them, even though President Obama says he would sign it right away.

The reason Republicans are making noise now about violating Norquist's tax pledge is that they are trying to convince Democrats and the White House to extend all tax cuts, including those on income over $250,000. Failing that, they want to create the appearance of being reasonable, which they hope would justify holding middle-class tax cuts hostage.

But even though they are offering to violate Norquist's tax pledge, the deal that Republicans are offering in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is actually worse than just letting those tax cuts expire. Basically, Republicans are saying that if we just keep tax rates as is, then they will promise to support limiting some deductions and therefore raising some revenue. Oh yeah, and they also say they'll only agree to make that promise in exchange for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But even if they keep that promise (which they won't)—or agreed to drop their demands to eviscerate the social safety net (another thing they won't do)—in all likelihood any loopholes they close will just result in new loopholes being created elsewhere in the tax code (or old ones being exploited).

That might result in a year or two of more revenue, but even though it would represent a violation of the Norquist pledge, it would be worse than if we just let the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 expire. Ironically, that wouldn't be a violation of the Norquist pledge—because it's what is set to happen under current law. Don't get me wrong, I'm not endorsing Grover Norquist here, but given the options on the table, we'd be better off if Republicans didn't violate the Norquist pledge. We need to raise tax revenue, and the simplest way to get it done is by maintaining current law on tax rates for income over $250,000.

Bottom line: the most efficient way to raise tax revenue is for Republicans to follow the Norquist pledge. This is one case where doing nothing is doing the right thing.


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