Pledge Problems

by Ramesh Ponnuru

For many years, Republican politicians chafing under the discipline of Americans for Tax Reform’s “taxpayer protection pledge” have said that they disagree with the organization’s interpretation of it. Up until now, these complaints have seemed to me to be hollow. The pledge is fairly straightforward, and politicians who don’t agree with it should not take it.

The current situation seems to me to be different because taxes are scheduled to go up by quite a bit. If a deal brings taxes higher than their current level but leaves them lower than they would be if taxes rise as scheduled, would voting for that deal really constitute voting to raise taxes? Norquist is taking the position that it would, but the letter of the pledge does not make that interpretation obviously correct. That interpretation would have perverse results, since in extremis it would mean that congressmen were duty-bound to let taxes rise a lot if the only practicable alternative were to have them rise a little.

In 2011, ATR itself took the more reasonable view that supporting a bill that allows some portion of a scheduled tax increase to take effect would not violate the pledge. (Follow the link, and you’ll see that ATR’s “clarification” of its initial statement does not go against this reasonable view, instead dancing around it.)

I’m not saying that Republicans should be advertising their willingness to see taxes go higher than their 2012 levels — just that they would not necessarily be breaking their word if they accept a deal with those higher taxes. On the other hand: If a deal raised taxes above even the higher post-expiration level, anyone voting for it would clearly be violating the pledge.

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