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Does the Norquist No-Tax Pledge Violate the Congressional Oath of Office?

04/25/2011 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2011

The Pledge extracted from members of Congress commits "a member to oppose and vote against any effort to raise the federal income tax on individuals or corporations."(Americans For Tax Reform) In addition to prohibiting direct increases, it also prohibits ending loopholes or deductions, since they likewise raise taxes. The pledge obviously is not enforceable anywhere except at the ballot box, but apparently it has become a powerful and intimidating political tool. There is no question that any candidate or elected official can declare opposition to any tax increase and vow never to raise taxes, but there is something about a written commitment initiated by a private group that troubles me.

The oath which each member of Congress takes requires the support and defense of the Constitution "without any mental reservation" and a promise to "well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office." Vowing never to raise taxes directly or indirectly is certainly a "mental reservation," in the same way that a pledge never to vote to authorize war would be. Taxes are certainly not mandated by the Constitution, but they are clearly authorized and allowed by it. I would think that an elected member of Congress in carrying out that oath would be expected to make legislative decisions based upon the facts and circumstances presented at the time. To commit in advance to a position without the necessary knowledge seems to be a dereliction of the duty imposed upon lawmakers, particularly when the commitment is made at the instigation of a private organization.

The current pledge is not the subject of public objection probably because everyone prefers not to have their taxes raised. But suppose the pledge was not to raise taxes on corporations only, or taxes on gas, or taxes on tobacco? If the promise was to aid a specific interest group, there would be no doubt as to its impropriety. But should it be the content of the pledge that makes the difference? Should the mere fact that it favors or is favored by most people render it acceptable? Circumstances may arise that even the most devout tax opponent would recognize as requiring the raising of taxes -- an unexpected attack upon this country, a major natural or accidental disaster or an insurmountable deficit resulting in a devastating economic crisis. Jurors are expected to decide cases based upon the evidence and facts presented to them and not prejudge them. Should anything less be expected of our elected representatives? The "Pledge" may be neither illegal nor unethical, but I cannot help but find it troublesome. Commitment to certain dearly held political principles is to be commended; but swearing blind allegiance to them is not.