U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss on Saturday morning made the case for ignoring Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge before an all-important group of Cobb County Republicans.
It was the largest home-state crowd Georgia’s senior senator had addressed since his pre-Thanksgiving Day declaration that the coming fiscal cliff and a $17 trillion federal deficit has changed the way that Republicans must think about taxation.
“I think that you sent me to Washington to think for myself. And I want to vote the way you want me to vote,” Chambliss said. “I don’t want to be dictated to by anybody in Washington, as to how I’m going to vote on anything.”
The packed hall of 150 activists included Attorney General Sam Olens; state GOP chairman Sue Everhart; J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Georgia Tea Party; and Phil Smith, national political director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan deficit-reduction organization. Chambliss showed up with Charlie Harman, his long-time chief of staff, and his top political strategist, Tom Perdue. That’s how important the event was.
In a detailed, 45-minute speech, Chambliss explained that he opposes hikes in individual tax rates, but favors elimination of deductions and loopholes that would increase the amount of tax revenue collected by the federal government. Fifteen percent of that money would be applied to deficit reduction – a violation of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, since any increase in revenue is required to be offset elsewhere.
This is where Chambliss was at his best:
”Most of you are familiar with the ethanol tax credit. The ethanol tax credit is a $6 billion annual tax break that is given to blenders of ethanol. Now, how many of you think we ought to eliminate that ethanol tax break?”
Dozens of hands went up, with hoots and applause. Ethanol subsidies are not popular in the South, especially among farmers, given that they boost the cost of corn. Chambliss then sprung the trap:
”Guess what? You just said you would violate the pledge that I signed. Because by the elimination of a tax credit, if you don’t take that money and reduce rates, that’s a violation of that pledge.
“I think we need to eliminate the ethanol tax credit. When my buddy Tom Coburn from Oklahoma proposed that last year and it came up for a vote, he was called by Grover Norquist – he compared him to Alger Hiss.”
This is not strictly true. On Twitter last month, Norquist indeed compared Coburn to the man accused of being a Soviet spy in the 1950s. But it was because of this thought that Coburn expressed in a November interview with the Washington Post, not his 2011 ethanol proposal:
“If you just raise rates, that’s going to be a drag on invested capital. I’m all for the very wealthy paying more taxes. But how you do it is very important.”
But let’s let Chambliss continue:
”When I said I care about my country more than I do about a 20-year-old pledge, that’s what I’m talking about. Things have changed in 20 years. We didn’t owe $17 trillion 20 years ago. We’re in a different world today….
“It’s a violation of the pledge because I say we’ve got to pay down some of our mortgage with that money. If we don’t pay down our mortgage, the debt is going to go up and up and up.
“I think that you sent me to Washington to think for myself. And I want to vote the way you want me to vote. I don’t want to be dictated to by anybody in Washington, as to how I’m going to vote on anything.”
At the breakfast gathering, Van Brink, the chairman of the Georgia Tea Party Coalition, was given a seat at Chambliss’ table. This was not an accident. Afterwards, the tea party leader said he leans more toward Newt Gingrich’s contention that the “fiscal cliff” – a combination of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that will hit Jan. 1 without a congressional compromise – is less dire than Chambliss says.
But Van Brink said he takes Chambliss’ point about the limitations of the Norquist pledge. “Obviously, the only way to pay down debt is to have a surplus. That means you have to collect more taxes than you’re spending,” he said.
The Concord Coalition, whose co-chairman is former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, is one of several organizations that have been backed Chambliss and his Democratic partner, Mark Warner of Virginia, in their attempts to forge a congressional consensus on the debt.
The group’s national political director was in the audience, ready with fulsome praise. “The 17 years I’ve been working on federal budget issues, I’ve never seen people quite like Mark Warner or Saxby Chambliss on this issue,” Smith said. “This is like being in that movie ‘Lincoln.’ I feel like I’m witnessing an ordinary senator evolve into something extraordinary. He didn’t have to do this.”
By and large, the audience appeared to be on Chambliss’ side — or at least not ready to desert. Mike Fitzgerald, chairman of the 6th District GOP, told the U.S. senator that vote attitudes toward his efforts might be different if they saw more efforts to trim spending first.
State Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature, said that, as much as he was concerned with excessive federal spending, he was also worried that unwise slashing of the federal budget could double the unemployment rate – a point that Chambliss also made.
In a lengthy question-and-answer session, GOP activist Drew Holley was the only Republican who declared himself unconvinced. Holley declared that when Chambliss and other Georgia members of Congress supported overspending by President George W. Bush in the 2000s, they lost all credibility with him.
“I just think we need new leaders,” said Holley, who added that he’s waiting for Chambliss’ 2014 primary challengers to show themselves. “I’m going to put my support behind those people,” he said.
A handful of loud demonstrators picketed on a sidewalk outside the meeting, at Cobb County GOP offices in Marietta. Attendees also found a flyer under the windshield blades of their cars, denouncing “Saxby’s two-faced taxation.”