Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, has been enormously effective at pressuring political candidates to put their no-new-taxes rhetoric in writing. Now that the Tea Party faction among House Republicans has pushed the government almost to the brink of default, I wonder if that same tactic could come in handy for politicians who believe it’s wrong to use the threat of a sovereign default as a bargaining chip.
The way that Americans for Tax Reform describes its taxpayer protection pledge, “candidates and incumbents solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases.” The pledge is to the voters in a candidate’s district. It goes like this:
“I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district of the state of _____ and to the American people that I will:
“One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
“Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”
Norquist and his group have been widely criticized for being inflexible in their approach and for hamstringing efforts to get deficit spending under control. But there is no doubt Norquist & Co. has gained a lot of influence. The organization’s website lists 219 members of the House of Representatives and 39 senators as pledge-signers. The group also says that more than 1,100 state office holders have signed the pledge.
I’m generally not a fan of political pledges, because they bind lawmakers into making decisions about how they will vote before they have all the necessary facts before them. Surely there are some situations that could arise in which voting for a tax increase would be in the best interest of the country. (Taxes rose during World War II, for instance.)
However, I do believe that all elected officials should take pains to uphold the Constitution. The 14th Amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States...shall not be questioned.” Threatening to push the country into default is a violation of the Constitution’s spirit, if not the text itself. Volunteering the country for a default should be unthinkable for an elected official.
So here's my idea for a simple pledge:
“I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district of the state of _____ and to the American people that I will oppose any and all efforts to call the validity of the public debt of the United States into question.”
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)