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Vestal: Lawmakers not married to tax pledge

Fri., Nov. 23, 2012

The no-new-taxes pledge seems to be losing its juice in Congress. Is it losing its juice with our congresswoman?

Yes. No. Maybe.

The pledge has been a near-perfect expression of one type of cognitive dissonance that afflicts our politics: fiscal “responsibility” stunts that contribute to fiscal irresponsibility. Tax-cutting, in and of itself, is often pitched as fiscally restrained, even as spending on wars or bailouts proceeds.

The recent election ushered in a congressional majority that has not signed the pledge – a promise to never, ever, ever raise taxes devised by Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. It has been GOP orthodoxy for a while now, but at least a couple newly elected Republicans have broken faith and refused to sign, facing the realities of trying to wrestle down the deficit.

Less certain is where our own representative – rising GOP star Cathy McMorris Rodgers – falls on this question. McMorris Rodgers’ visibility has exploded over the past year, as she became the point woman in the War on the War on Women; she was just voted chairman of the House Republican Conference, making her the fourth-ranking member of the House.

Does she still intend to honor the pledge, which she signed when first running for office in 2004? Or is she, like others, tempted to stray?

McMorris Rodgers isn’t saying, exactly. She’s hinting like crazy – but the hints leave about a mile of leeway on either side.

In an interview with the S-R following her trouncing of Rich Cowan, McMorris Rodgers adopted an open-minded-sounding pose about taxes.

“I believe that we need tax reform, and I believe that everything needs to be on the table as we approach those discussions,” she said. “I’m very hesitant to raise rates. I believe that it would have a negative impact on an economy that continues to struggle, and that we need to be aware and keep in mind that part of the solution is getting the economy growing again.”

Hesitant to raise rates? This line in the sand is not what it was. The pledge she signed makes this promise: to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and … oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

McMorris Rodgers wasn’t available for an interview this week. Her spokesman, Todd Winer, issued this statement when asked about the pledge:

“The Congresswoman supports tax reform to create a simpler, fairer tax code. She believes there is a great opportunity for President Obama and Congress to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ by striking a deal that raises tax revenue by closing tax loopholes, without raising overall tax rates. When it comes to tax reform – like every issue – she will listen closely to the people of Eastern Washington and advocate for them. There is often value in hearing from different grassroots organizations, but her decision-making process has been – and will continue to be – guided exclusively by what she sees as best for our community.”

The Norquist pledge has been a political pivot point since the Reagan era – it is as reliable a source of liberal agitation as it is a source of conservative approval. It is a symbol, a shorthand, an emblem. I wonder if it has half the potency some of us assign to it.

It’s not as if extreme tax hostility doesn’t exist, pledge or no. It’s hard to imagine that those who voted for Paul Ryan’s budget in the House, like McMorris Rodgers, were not expressing their true, uncoerced vision – that we should cut massively and destructively from government services while reducing taxes for the wealthy.

A Republican congressman-elect from Florida, Ted Yoho, who considers taxes a “necessary evil,” nevertheless would not sign the pledge.

“I don’t want to sign a pledge that’s going to tie my hands,” he told The Hill. “I need free rein to do what I think is right for the people in my district and the country.”

Freedom! What McMorris Rodgers is saying has more in common with Yoho’s views than it does with the strict anti-tax fundamentalism of recent years. If she wanted to go further – to become a conscientious objector – she could look for an example to a colleague from Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson.

This is what Simpson told Fox News last year about the pledge:

“I didn’t know I was signing a marriage agreement that would last forever, and I think that the majority of members of Congress understand that you have to have additional revenue. If you look at the percentage of the GDP that comes into the government right now, it’s about 14 percent – 14 to 15 percent. It’s traditionally been 18 percent, in that neighborhood. So the revenue coming into the government has decreased as a percentage of GDP. And the expenditures that used to be around 19 percent are now up around 25 percent. We’ve got to bring those closer together again.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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