There's no truth to the tale that a leading liberal economist has foisted a "no cuts" pledge on Democratic legislators. Every thinking American knows that such a vow would simply be absurd: Lawmakers can't possibly produce a responsible budget if they're handcuffed by promises to third parties that preclude negotiation. Even the most well-meaning and beneficial federal program must be considered fair game if circumstances demand cutbacks. A willingness to compromise is essential to the management of a government accountable to the people.
Apparently, to some, it doesn't work the other way around. Over the years, scores of Republican legislators have signed Grover Norquist's "no tax" pledge, forswearing the approval of any and all new taxes -- including even the closing of tax avoidance loopholes -- no matter how badly the cost of government services exceeds revenue. Those lawmakers, too, are handcuffed by promises to third parties that stymie negotiation and compromise.
In some cases, thankfully, not for long.
As fiscal-cliff talks move along, with President Obama and Democrats suddenly holding most of the cards, a growing number of Republicans have signaled their willingness to explore middle ground.
Imagine that: Governance through cooperation. Leadership forged around give and take.
Some of the most stalwart conservatives in Congress have, since summer and at an increasing pace since then, chafed beneath Norquist's saddle. On Nov. 12, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told The New York Times he considers his longstanding pledge to have expired. "I don't think you can have a rule that you're never going to raise taxes or that you're never going to lower taxes," he said.
On Nov. 22, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told a local television station he too was prepared to shred his pledge. "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," he said. "If we do it (Norquist's) way then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said this on the most recent edition of "Fox News Sunday": "When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece, and Republicans should put revenue on the table." Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., in an appearance on ABC's "This Week," said much the same thing.
Appearing on CNN Monday, Norquist promised to let voters know "who has kept their commitment and who hasn't."
Let him. Voters will also hold members of Congress liable if intransigence maintains its death grip on statesmanship until everyone goes over the edge together. There comes a point when duty to country supercedes devotion to party ideology. If the formula demands both spending reductions and revenue increases, Congress must find the balance.
Republicans must not confuse compromise with capitulation, of course, and we doubt they will. The country is in this fiscal bind because government spends more than it takes in, and Republicans have historically been the most vocal about holding the line. They should and surely will continue to do so. But taking pledges against any possibility of meaningful negotiation -- which is essentially what the Norquist anti-tax pledge is -- only blocks the path to fair and thoughtful solutions.