The limits of pledging

Politico reports that a few freshmen Republican Congressmen are publicly backing away from the pledge they made not to vote for any tax increase. Politico cites Scott Rigell (Virginia), Allen West (Florida), and Reid Ribble (Wisconsin). They made the pledge, as many others did, in response to Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform group.

Rigell and Ribble say they are backing away from the pledge because it precludes closing tax loopholes as a means of reducing the debt. Other freshmen reportedly have privately told Politico that they too are troubled by their pledge because it is a hindrance to certain tax reforms they’d like to see.

This concern is well-founded, in my opinion. Theoretically, it may be possible to take on our massive debt through spending reductions only. As a practical matter, however, this won’t happen as long as the Democrats can hold onto 41 Senate seats.

The Dems are nearly certain to retain more than 40 seats in this election, and tackling the debt should not be put off until 2015 in the hope that, by then, Republicans will reach the magic number. Thus, a deal may well be needed.

The deal that makes the most sense is one that implements major spending cuts in exchange for closing certain tax loopholes. Hopefully, with the closing of the loopholes, tax rates would be reduced. Moreover, closing certain loopholes may be a good thing in itself; some tax loopholes distort economic behavior for no particularly good reason.

But closing loopholes means a tax increase for those who have enjoyed them. It therefore violates the letter of the pledge, though arguably not the spirit in which it was made.

It’s not clear that Republicans will be able to make the kind of deal with Democrats described above. But if they are, and the details of the deal are sound, the pledge should not stand in its way.

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