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Tom Coburn's office gave this simple rationale for why 34 Republicans voted with Coburn - and against Grover Norquist's opposition - in yesterday's failed attempt to end tax breaks for ethanol providers:
Here’s why [Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform's] position is ridiculous. If President Obama announced a $6 billion stimulus subsidy for high speed rail or clean coal technology many Republicans would have concerns, and rightly so. Yet, if that same stimulus plan was put in the tax code as a credit then, according to ATR, it would be the ‘conservative’ position. Putting parochial spending in the tax code doesn’t give it holy status. Today’s vote shows the days of hiding special interest spending in the tax code are over.
The vote failed 40-59. But the Republicans who joined Coburn made an important point: there isn't anything conservative about voting for subsidies disguised as tax breaks.
Coburn's office could have also made a second point: why is it conservative to protect tax breaks for ethanol blenders and producers - or any narrow special interest for that matter?
The real importance of Grover Norquist's tax pledge is that it has helped keep Congress from raising taxes on you and me. The pledge, at its best, has helped protect taxpayers. But when Norquist holds congressional feet over the fire to keep taxes lower for a special interest while yours and my tax rates are unaffected, he loses credibility. There is nothing conservative about keeping taxes lower for one industry group simply because they had the Washington connections necessary to get their interests written into the tax code.
Republicans had cover on their vote. Koch Industries and the Club for Growth supported Coburn's measure, and Jim DeMint has offered an amendment ending the estate tax and ethanol mandate that ATR has said Republicans could vote for and thereby not have their Coburn vote counted against them.
Whether or not some of the Republicans voted only because they had this cover doesn't matter. They did the right thing and reminded their colleagues what the conservative position on ethanol subsidies should be.