Norquist Anti-Tax Pledge Plays Starring Role in Fiscal Debate
Rep.-elect Ted Yoho has pledged allegiance to the United States, his wife of 38 years and, during his successful run for Florida's 3rd congressional district, that he wouldn't become a career politician, saying he would serve no more than four terms in that office.
But the veterinarian and small business owner chose not to follow dozens of other conservative lawmakers before him in signing a pledge that would prevent him from voting to raise taxes.
"Signing an anti-tax pledge is not going to solve our problems and probably one of the biggest things is, it puts a handcuff on you because you are saying, 'Well, I can't raise taxes under any circumstances because I gave my word.' I don't want to have that kind of limitation," Yoho told the NewsHour three weeks before he arrives in Washington for a Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony.
The "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a signature project of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, is a plainly written statement that has taken a starring role in the end-of-the-year Capitol Hill drama that could determine America's fiscal health.
"That pledge is making it impossible for reasonable people to have a reasonable discussion about taxes in the Congress," Bill Gale of the Brookings Institution said during a Politico tax policy briefing Monday. "If you've taken tax increases off the table, you have nothing to offer."
Norquist and ATR first introduced the pledge in support of President Reagan's Tax Reform Act of 1986, a law that experts say broadened the tax base and reduced marginal tax rates on some upper income taxpayers.
ATR spokesman John Kartch said it was " to protect taxpayers from a net tax increase and bracket hikes."
And every election year since, Norquist's group asks members of Congress and candidates to take the pledge. Over the past 26 years, 238 House members and 41 Senators have taken it. ATR bills it as a binding contract between a lawmaker and its constituents that they won't support tax increases for the duration of their time in office.
But that's not the case for the lone Democrat in Congress who has signed the pledge.
Rep. Robert Andrews, who represents New Jersey's 1st district, has changed his viewpoint since signing 20 years ago.
"Congressman Andrews signed a pledge not to raise taxes in the new term he was running for in 1992," Fran Tagmire, Andrews's chief of staff, told the NewsHour Tuesday.
While Andrews has honored it over two decades, he no longer supports its principles. "The Congressman has not signed the pledge in subsequent terms and believes in the present context a no tax pledge is the wrong policy," Tagmire said.
In the next Congress, Andrews will be co-chairman of a committee that aims to develop a plan to create jobs and strengthen the middle class.
Under the pledge, lawmakers can trade one deduction or credit for another as long as it doesn't result in a tax increase. "A pledge signer could endorse and sign legislation eliminating a particular tax credit or deduction as long as the same piece of legislation contained a reduction in taxes by the same amount or more," Kartch says.
Even as ATR officials say the group doesn't enforce the pledge, its website features a list of members of Congress who have signed the document at some point in their political careers. ATR also says voters use this pledge to decide whether to support a candidate and that it is binding as long as an individual holds the office.
Norquist offered a similar message in an interview Wednesday with NewsHour's Judy Woodruff.
"Most Republicans have committed not to me, but to their constituents," he said. "They have to talk to their constituents."
Yoho said that his campaign messages, which included opposition to tax increases, were enough to satisfy his constituents and that signing such a pledge to him wouldn't be the smartest idea.
"Say for instance that -- God forbid -- this country ever went through a major world war and the only way you could raise revenue to fund that would be to raise taxes, you'd have to go back to your district and say 'Hey, we've got this war, but I've signed that pledge, I can't vote for that.' That would be ridiculous," he said.
According to ATR, 219 House members and 39 Senators in the next Congress support the pledge. That list includes House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But it's not clear if everyone on the list still maintains an allegiance to its principles -- especially those who've been in office for a while.
With Americans twice electing a president who has campaigned on a policy of higher tax rates for the wealthiest Americans to fix the country's fiscal issues, recent reports indicate that support among other lawmakers on the list may be shifting.
By ATR's own count, the number of newly elected members who have taken the pledge has decreased. In the current Congress, six House Republicans declined to sign the pledge. In the next Congress, that number has grown to 16.
Norquist told Woodruff he isn't concerned about the pledge signers. "Most Republicans have made it clear they are not interested in raising taxes, they want to reform government," he said.
His argument is that there are always some Republicans who are open to raising taxes, but, "[I]f you put taxes on the table you never get spending restraint."
Watch the full interview on the NewsHour Wednesday night.