WASHINGTON -- The outcome of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD hung on the matter of a diphthong. The orthodox camp defended the doctrine of homoousios; Arians preferred homoiousios. Setting aside the complexities of Trinitarian theology, it is enough to say that an iota's difference sundered Christendom. "Everywhere," St. Gregory of Nyssa later recounted, "in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him."
Republicans in Congress are now engaged in a theological debate of similar intensity on the nature and substance of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Forty-one Republican members of the Senate have signed a promise to oppose "any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates." Some now hope to amend that pledge by a consequential iota.
The current budget impasse in Washington is easier to summarize than resolve. A necessary increase in the debt ceiling will require a budget agreement. Any deal will consist mainly of spending reductions. "But if we are talking about trillions," says Donald Marron, director of the Tax Policy Center, "that is an awful lot of money to move without concessions." Democrats will insist on some revenue increases. Republicans won't accept tax increases. Yet stalemate involves unacceptable economic risk.
To resolve this conundrum, it is necessary to identify a category of government revenue increases that aren't considered tax increases. Economists call these "tax expenditures" -- credits and deductions that are actually a form of hidden government spending. Consider the example of the mortgage interest deduction for second homes. "This is a kind of upper-middle-class entitlement program run through the tax code," says Marron. The same policy goal could be accomplished by simply sending checks to qualifying taxpayers. Many conservative economists would regard the end of this deduction as a limit on government activism, even though it would make official revenues larger. But the author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge -- Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform -- does not agree.
Which has led to the great ethanol debate of 2011. In the world of economic conservatism, Norquist and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are both revered figures. But St. Thomas views the $5 billion a year federal tax credit for ethanol blenders as a spending program. St. Grover, adopting a strict interpretation of the pledge, views the elimination of this subsidy as a tax increase. Coburn calls Norquist's position "a profoundly misguided embrace of progressive, activist government." Norquist responds that Coburn has "lied" to the people of Oklahoma by modifying his pledge.
It is not a minor disagreement. Tax expenditures -- including ethanol subsidies, the mortgage interest deduction, the deduction for state and local taxes, the exclusion of health benefits from income tax calculations, the depreciation allowance for businesses, the Earned Income Tax Credit -- amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Cutting some of these subsidies would be unpopular, unwise or both. But taking all tax expenditures off the table would make it difficult to achieve, or even imagine, a budget agreement in the Senate.
To include tax expenditures in their negotiations, Senate Republicans "would need to violate the letter of the tax pledge, while arguing they are meeting the spirit," says Marron. They would have conservative support, including from think tanks and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Many free market economists are opposed to government micromanagement of the economy, even if reforms have the side effect of increasing revenue. But explaining this paradox is difficult. "Grover's task is easy," says Marron. "He can hold up the Congressional Budget Office score and show that revenues are up."
Norquist's role in this debate is the equivalent of the policy veto Democrats often grant to labor unions or the National Education Association. It is hard to fault these advocates for serving their own agendas. But the public interest can be broader.
Coburn has made his position clear. The most important pledge, he says, "is the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States" not "a pledge from a special interest group, who claims to speak for all of American conservatives when in fact they really don't."
It will be difficult, and may be important, for other Republicans to follow him.