Grover Norquist has strong opinions on taxes, in the sense that a serial killer has strong opinions on human life. Norquist is the demure, restrained gentleman who once said he wanted to shrink government down until it was small enough to drown in a bathtub, though that would mean we’d probably lose a lot of wars.

Mr. Norquist, staring wistfully into the middle distance as he imagines a tax-free world.
Gage Skidmore

As head of Americans for Tax Reform (where “reform” means “gleeful obliteration”), Norquist has for years held conservative politicians hostage to a commitment to oppose any new taxes. This pledge — an actual, physical signed pledge to not raise taxes — instilled a de facto obstructionism that helped kill any bipartisan compromise during last year’s budget talks.

Therefore, this report from the National Journal is a surprise.

In a step that may help crack open the partisan impasse on climate change, Grover Norquist, the influential lobbyist who has bound hundreds of Republicans to a pledge never to raise taxes, told National Journal that a proposed “carbon tax swap” — taxing carbon pollution in exchange for cutting the income tax — would not violate his pledge. …

[C]reating a new “energy tax” would be viewed by some as political suicide. And Republicans who have signed Norquist’s pledge would be barred from supporting it.

That’s where the “swap” side of the policy comes in: The new carbon tax would be paired with a cut in the income tax — something Republicans have long sought. The idea essentially would be to cut the tax on income and move it over to carbon pollution — keeping the proposal revenue-neutral.

Norquist’s new openness on this issue implies that he’s perhaps more interested in relieving the tax burden on wealthy Americans (like himself) than in unilaterally opposing taxes. But we’ll set that aside for now because embracing him in this moment suits our political motives (a line of reasoning that would be hard for Norquist to fault). But, wow! A carbon tax!

We noted increased calls for a carbon tax last week, suggesting that the primary remaining stumbling block was the hyper-conservative House. Norquist’s statement is not carte blanche for the House GOP, but it cracks the door, provides political cover to representatives who are looking for an out. (It may also be a chance for Norquist to salvage his reputation after an election year that some have implied weakened his influence. If he says it’s OK to do something that the House might have done anyway, he can suggest that it was his OK, his king-making, that got the deal done.)

There’s a lot of reason to still be bearish on the idea that a carbon tax will be implemented, and it is certainly the case that a carbon tax tied to income-tax reductions is a pyrrhic victory. After all, the goal of a carbon tax is to reduce carbon emissions, and the more emissions are reduced, the less tax revenue comes in — something that Norquist is almost certainly aware of.

But in the interim, there’s now some possible breathing space to make a deal. Even Grover Norquist, it seems, doesn’t want the government to drown in rising sea water.

UPDATE: Or, well, I guess he does. Americans for Tax Reform this morning made its — and Norquist’s — opposition to a carbon tax clear using the following analogy.

Two smaller tapeworms are not an improvement over one big tapeworm. Tapeworms and taxes grow.

Yes, but tapeworms are also great for losing weight. I don’t know how that’s relevant, but that’s my counterargument.

This post is part of our November 2012 theme: Post-election hangover — whither the climate?