EDITORIALS

Hedging in government by too many pledges

Tax forms and instructions for 2009 returns are seen at the Bangor Public Library in February 2010.
Tax forms and instructions for 2009 returns are seen at the Bangor Public Library in February 2010.
Posted Oct. 16, 2011, at 3:45 p.m.

As lawmakers in Washington face the urgent problems of providing jobs and restoring the stagnant economy, many are entangled in a web of their own making: the Grover Norquist tax pledge.

Mr. Norquist calls his group Americans for Tax Reform — any guesses whether that means up or down? He started the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in 1986 with the backing of President Ronald Reagan. He has signed up hundreds of Republican candidates and most of the current congressional Republicans, plus a few Democrats, on a promise to oppose “any and all tax increases.”

Signers include all six Republican members of the bipartisan deficit reduction committee and every current Republican presidential candidate except former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah.

But not one member of the Maine congressional delegation. Neither of Maine’s two senators, both Republicans, have signed it. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s spokesman said she “has not. And won’t.” Sen Susan Collins’s spokesman, Kevin Kelley, said, “She pledges allegiance to the flag and the Constitution, and that’s it.”

Maine’s two Democratic representatives also never signed the pledge. Rep. Mike Michaud’s press secretary, Ed Gilman, said, “The more pledges you sign, less chance you have to reach bipartisan agreement.” Rep. Chellie Pingree said, “To balance the budget we need to get spending and revenue on the table, and signing a pledge to never consider raising taxes on the richest Americans will make it almost impossible to get our deficit under control.”

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, assailed Mr. Norquist and his pledge on the House floor, and Sen. John Thune of North Dakota suggested that anti-tax pledges should be revisited as obstructing broad-based tax reform.

Nobody likes taxes, but most Americans would concede that some are necessary, starting with those supporting police and fire protection. Conceivably, the creation of new jobs to replace those lost in the recent and persisting recession may require selective tax increases. The same could be true of the quest for a bipartisan agreement to reduce the continuing budget deficit and the national debt. As any family knows, it takes increased income as well as reduced spending to balance a budget.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican of Alabama, who signed the pledge, told The New York Times in an interview: “I’ve signed more pledges than I should have over the years. All of us ought to be somewhat reluctant to make these pledges. I think people who have been here longer do fewer.”

To put the matter simply, the signers have tied their own hands behind their backs, as if they don’t trust their own future judgment.

In the Greek classics, the mythical Odysseus had his crew lash him to the mast as they sailed past a rock where the Siren sat combing her golden hair. He didn’t trust his own temptation.

To put it another way, the lawmakers should copy the Mexican bandit in the classic movie “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and tell Mr. Norquist: “Pledges? We don’t need no pledges! We don’t have to show you any stinkin’ pledges!”

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