If a major deal on cutting the deficit emerges from debt-reductions talks — one that includes increases in revenue — large numbers of Republicans will be unable to consider it on the merits unless they break a vow. That's because they have taken "the pledge" — the no-tax promise foisted on candidates by Americans for Tax Reform and its founder, Grover Norquist. In the House, 236 members have signed on.
The pledge leaves little wiggle room: "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."
We're likely to see more pledges as the 2012 presidential campaign advances. Republican candidate Rick Santorum had to defend himself the other day for signing "The Marriage Vow," drafted by an organization called the Family Leader. The vows to which its signatories commit themselves include not only opposition to same-sex marriage, easy divorce and "Sharia Islam" but also "personal fidelity to my spouse." (Michele Bachmann also signed the pledge.)
Then there is the Susan B. Anthony List's "Pro-Life Leadership Pledge," which includes a promise to "select pro-life appointees for relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions, in particular the head of the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice." The pledge has been signed by former Minnesota. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican hopeful, among others.
Not all pledges are conservative. The Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group, promotes a pledge not to cut Social Security or raise the program's retirement age.
The most important objection to such pledges is that conditions change, and a member of Congress or other public official shouldn't be tied forever to the mast of a single position, especially one embraced under pressure in a political campaign. Some representatives trust their own opinion above all, in keeping with Edmund Burke's observation that a representative owed his constituents "not his industry only, but his judgment." Other representatives look above all to the views of the electorate. But neither philosophy of representation is compatible with pledges.
A politician pressed to sign one should just say no.