Why You Should Always Read the Fine Print

The Republican members of Congress frantically struggling to get released from Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge should save themselves the effort. Not only is it a fruitless battle, it only plays into the narrative that Norquist is some kind of puppet-master orchestrating the supercommittee gridlock:

The sheet of paper they signed years ago, the lawmakers say, is no longer valid.

It’s hard to feel sorry for these lawmakers. As far back as 1997, Americans for Tax Reform made it clear that the anti-tax pledge doesn’t expire:

Do I have to take the pledge every time I run for office?

No. A candidate only needs to take the pledge once. Candidates are always welcome to take the pledge each election cycle and show their continued support of taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the pledge hasn’t had the best track record over the years, at least in terms of deficit spending. There’s an argument to be made that the hard line on taxes has shielded Americans from feeling the strain of the out-of-control federal spending, giving them less personal incentive to oppose new programs. Conor Friedersdorf made this point well in a takedown of the pledge at The Atlantic over the summer:

What Norquist doesn’t understand or won’t admit is that deficit spending is worse than a tax increase, because you’ve got to pay for it eventually anyway, with interest. Meanwhile, you’ve created in the public mind the illusion that the level of government services they’re consuming is cheaper and less burdensome than is in fact the case. If you hold the line on taxes but not the deficit, you’re making big government more palatable.

So lawmakers may be stuck, but that doesn’t mean they have to honor the agreement. They can always break it and risk the consequences. And even if those who do object to tax increases have plenty of reasons to do so beyond Norquist’s pledge. But simply complaining after the fact that they didn’t know it was permanent is useless.