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An Oklahoma Congressman who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee is the first person in Washington to speak clearly about the debate over the looming expiration of tax cuts first enacted under President George W. Bush.

Politico reports that Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma has argued to fellow Congressional Republicans that voting for President Obama’s proposal to extend the Bush income tax cuts for income up to $250,000 (up to $200,000 for unmarried taxpayers) is clearly a vote for cutting taxes, not raising them, and therefore does not violate a no-tax-increase pledge promoted by Grover Norquist’s organization and signed by most Republican lawmakers.

In other words, the President’s approach is a tax cut, just not quite as big of a tax cut (particularly for the rich) as the Republican Congressional leadership has advocated so far. This is illustrated in the graph below, which is from CTJ’s recent reports on the competing approaches to these expiring tax cuts.



This issue has been muddled by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in the White House. For example, President Obama often refers to his proposal to extend the tax cuts for income up to $250,000 or $200,000 as a way to “raise revenue.”

But Rep. Cole is correct because the Bush tax cuts are temporary tax cuts that are specifically written to expire at a certain date. Any extension of part of those tax cuts is a new tax cut that reduces revenue, and is “scored” by the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office as a revenue loss.

President Obama’s approach would extend the Bush income tax cuts entirely for 98 percent of Americans and partially for the richest two percent of Americans. Rep. Cole is reported to argue that Congressional Republicans should settle right now for Obama’s proposal to extend the tax cuts entirely for 98 percent of Americans, before they expire, and debate the tax cuts for the richest two percent at a later date.

CTJ has long argued that President Obama’s proposal would extend far too many of the unaffordable Bush tax cuts, but Congress should enact his proposal for the short-term if it is the least irresponsible option being debated today. On the other hand, if anti-tax lawmakers in Congress refuse to follow Cole’s lead and instead block any tax bill that does not include an extension of all the tax cuts, then President Obama should simply allow all of the tax cuts to expire.

The logic used by most Congressional Republicans (not including Rep. Cole) is that allowing the expiration of a tax cut is the same thing as enacting a tax increase. But this logic is not applied consistently. While the Republican tax bills in the House and Senate would extend all the tax cuts first enacted under President Bush, they would allow the expiration of some expansions of the of the EITC and the Child Tax Credit that were first enacted under President Obama in 2009. That’s why the graph above shows that low- and middle-income groups would get slightly smaller average tax cuts under the approach of GOP Congressional leaders than they would get under Obama’s approach. (The difference is much more dramatic for the particular families affected.)

Somehow, followers of Grover Norquist don’t seem to consider the expiration of a tax cut to be a “tax increase” when only low- and middle-income people are affected.