No-tax oath begins to chafe in debt discussions

Grover Norquist, who started the cause in 1986, tweeted his displeasure with Rep. Rob Andrews (R., N.J.) last week.
Grover Norquist, who started the cause in 1986, tweeted his displeasure with Rep. Rob Andrews (R., N.J.) last week. (Associated Press, File)
Posted: November 15, 2011

A quarter of a century ago, antitax crusader Grover Norquist began asking politicians to pledge to "oppose and vote against tax increases." Pledge they did, from state capitals to Capitol Hill.

A few, such as South Jersey's Rob Andrews, were Democrats. For Republicans, the no-tax oath became an article of faith, second only to filing papers for candidacy.

Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform group now lists 238 House members, 41 senators, and 13 governors (including Gov. Corbett) among the signers.

But the bonds between the pledge and some of its signers could be loosening.

A growing number of lawmakers, including Andrews, say they no longer feel bound by the pledge. Others have tried to wriggle out of it with wishy-washy words or tacit acknowledgments that a tax-neutral solution to the economy's relentless woes may not work.

"I still maintain that increasing taxes on individuals or businesses during an economic downturn is not the way to go," U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.) said last week in a statement. "Having said that, we are facing unprecedented economic challenges."

The pledge has drawn increased scrutiny as Congress' 12-member "supercommittee" nears its Nov. 23 deadline for crafting a plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion in 10 years.

Amid talk of a possible impasse, 100 House members, including 40 Republicans, urged the panel to show "political courage" and work toward a bipartisan accord.

"All options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table," the Nov. 2 letter read.

Antitax groups lashed out immediately.

"In Washington-speak, this is code for raising taxes," Americans for Prosperity declared in a blog post.

The signers of the offending Nov. 2 letter included three Pennsylvania congressmen - Pat Meehan of Delaware County, Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks, and Charlie Dent of the Lehigh Valley.

All three had also signed the pledge.

Though Meehan does not think raising taxes during a deep recession "is a good idea or will create jobs," his spokeswoman, Maureen Keith, noted in an e-mail that the letter he and 99 others signed says "all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table."

Asked whether "all options" include raising taxes, Keith sent no reply. (Neither Fitzpatrick nor Dent responded to requests for comment.)

Experts say the wriggling shows lawmakers are mindful of the public's frustration with partisan gridlock - especially as major elections near.

"I think they're very, very conscious of the fact that they're going to be up in 2012, and they do not want to be seen as inflexible," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

As the deadline for deficit-cutting nears, a few signers have done more than wriggle.

"We're on track to owe $20 trillion, and to be beholden to some pledge when the future of the country is at stake is kind of silly," U.S. Rep. Steven LaTourette (R., Ohio), who signed in 1994, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Even LaTourette's ally and fellow Ohioan, House Speaker John A. Boehner, brushed off Norquist as "some random person" when reporters prodded him earlier this month to discuss Norquist's influence.

Andrews, a Camden County Democrat, was at the end of his freshman term in Congress when he signed the pledge in 1992. On Thursday, he said in an interview that he had felt 1991's income-tax increases "were harmful and not going to do us any good at that time."

He also said he believed the pledge committed him for only a single term.

When word of Andrews' latest views got out, Norquist slammed him on Twitter.

"Andrews: The tax pledge is promise to oppose tax hikes as long as one is in congress. Not until you change your mind," Norquist wrote Tuesday. He said that had been spelled out "in Questions and Answers attached to pledge you signed."

Andrews fired back: "@GroverNorquist wants us 2read fine print. I say - read the Constitution! lets uphold the national interest, not his agenda." Asked for Norquist's comments on all this, spokesman John Kartch referred a reporter to Norquist's recent remarks to the Wall Street Journal: that the idea of the pledge lasting only one term was "the silliest argument I've ever heard," and that a candidate "who says, 'I'm not going to raise taxes on you, please vote for me' - and then keeps his word - is a good thing, not a bad thing."

To be sure, Norquist's backing remains "something that a lot of GOP legislators seek," said political scientist Chris Borick of Muhlenberg College. "But they also have to seek middle ground on a number of issues that the public is very much interested in having practical solutions for."

Borick cited voters' rejection of several conservative ballot issues on Tuesday.

"The middle is speaking a little louder" than in 2008 or 2010, he said. "2012 might be a place where the extremes are out of fashion and people are looking for pragmatic, reasonable options - and sometimes that means bending."


Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237, jfarrell@phillynews.com, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

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