World and Nation

Anti-tax pledges lose their allure as eyes turn to reform

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah has signed a pledge never to raise taxes. He signed another pledge too, one that made it nearly impossible to vote for a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. But right before that vote over the summer, in a meeting with scores of his Republican colleagues, he stood up and proclaimed that he would never sign another pledge. While some pledges, like marriage vows, may always carry weight, strict anti-tax pledges may be losing their sheen.

On Tuesday, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., took to the House floor for a rare excoriation of anti-tax activist Grover G. Norquist and his strictly worded pledge, which has been signed by almost the entire Republican caucus as well as a few Democrats. A day later, Sen. John Thune of North Dakota suggested that anti-tax pledges ought to be revisited, because they can be interpreted too broadly in closing loopholes or eliminating tax deductions.

“We shouldn’t be bound by something that could be interpreted different ways if what we’re trying to accomplish is broad-based tax reform,” he said.

These events, and interviews with lawmakers, suggest that anti-tax pledges are beginning to worry lawmakers, fundraisers and others because of fears that they hamstring efforts to rewrite the nation’s tax code — a task viewed as a necessity by many on both sides of the aisle and the Rotunda.

“There is pledge fatigue,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who signed the Norquist pledge when he first ran for office in 2004 but has since jettisoned his support. “Many Americans are very cynical about the motives of politicians so they want something harder to be able to believe in a person. But the pledge turns the power over to someone else to interpret whether what you did was right or wrong and limits your creativity.”

Norquist, who heads the group Americans for Tax Reform, uses his pledge, which began in 1986 with the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, as a litmus test for candidates on taxes. Known as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, it makes candidates and incumbents “bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases.” Hundreds of Republicans have signed it, including all six on the bipartisan congressional deficit reduction committee.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who also signed it, said 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 be sure, the majority of Republican lawmakers are not running away from Norquist. All the Republican presidential candidates other than Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, have gotten on board.

Norquist said that those who raise questions about the pledge often do not understand it.

“The pledge specifically says you can eliminate tax deductions if you bring rates down at same time,” he said. “The people who say that the pledge would get in the way of tax reform, well their point is they want a tax increase.”