Tax Pledge Disavowals Reflect Humpty Dumpty Politics

Bob Barr

11/28/2012 9:09:00 AM - Bob Barr

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less. --Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”

Despite the ponderous complexities of modern statutes and regulations (the text of the legislation that became “ObamaCare” was some 2400 pages long), some things actually are quite simple and straightforward. Take the Second Amendment to our Constitution. Despite decades-long efforts by gun-control advocates to twist its meaning into a vehicle with which to limit gun rights, the Amendment’s crystal clear operative language – “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” – is the law of the land (thanks largely to the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision).

Take the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” made famous by Washington’s Grover Norquist, founder and CEO of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Its five dozen words convey with unmistakable clarity, a signer’s vow not to increase taxes. The Pledge does this by requiring each voluntary signatory to, “. . . oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

There is no expiration date included in the ATR Pledge; nor is there language directing its promise to Norquist or any other individual. It is not, as Norquist recently reminded its 258 congressional signers, a promise to him. Each signer, in affixing his or her John Hancock thereto, is promising their constituents that they will not vote to raise taxes.

Here again, the language of the Pledge is dramatic in its transparency. A signer “ . . . pledge[s]to the taxpayers of the[ir] state . . . and to the American people.”

Still, despite the magnificent clarity of purpose and intent in the ATR Pledge, in the wake of the Republican Party’s failure to deny President Barack Obama a second term, a few GOP senators and representatives are verbally contorting themselves and parsing the words of the Pledge in much the same way former President Bill Clinton parsed the word “is.” They are doing this in an effort either to deny the clear terms of their pledge, or to pretend the lack of a time limit for its applicability means it is magically no longer operative. These “sunshine patriots” appear to be succumbing to the myth that the United States will tumble over some proverbial “cliff” if more “revenue” is not brought into the federal coffers; as if lack of sufficient “tax revenues” rather than runaway federal spending in recent years is the cause of our more-than $16 trillion national debt.

It may be rather interesting to observe how a single electoral loss can move grown men and women to doubt their own common sense to such a degree, that they feel forced (or emboldened) to make a 180-degree pivot on such a fundamental policy decision as raising taxes. While watching this kabuki might be interesting, it is at the same time terribly discouraging. This is because recent, post-election ATR Pledge disavowals such as those by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, and GOP Rep. Peter King of New York, among others, illustrate just how little fundamental integrity undergirds many of our elected officials.

Such actions also provide aid and comfort to those in Washington, especially most Democrats, who unashamedly believe American taxpayers – especially those making enviably higher incomes – are not paying sufficient taxes to satisfy these politicians’ lust for spending loot. To them, even if they feel themselves forced to agree to small spending “cuts” (often nothing more than decreases in projected increases), there must be increased revenues (i.e., taxes) in order to offset the spending cuts. Only in Washington would this tortured, Bizarro World logic be spoken with a straight face, or be considered by the “chattering class” to constitute “sound economics.”

Thankfully, there still is Grover Norquist; who still understands that a promise is a promise, that our fiscal problems are caused by too much spending not by insufficient taxes, and that words have objective meaning. And thank goodness most signers of the ATR Taxpayer Protection Pledge have not yet joined the Humpty Dumpty Party.