A better pledge, for a more perfect union

Imagine if an aspiring surgeon signed a pledge never to perform an amputation. Or an applicant for dental school signed a pledge never to extract a tooth. Or a presidential candidate signed a pledge never to launch nuclear missiles.

Would we consider them professionals? Would we trust them to be our surgeon, our dentist, our president? Of course we don’t want anyone to have to amputate a limb or extract a tooth. But there are circumstances when failure to take such painful actions constitutes a lapse of professional duty. And our national defense strategy for decades has been built around the possibility that we could launch a nuclear attack.

Why, then, do we allow — even encourage — members of Congress and state legislatures to sign pledges never to vote for a tax increase? Raising taxes may be undesirable, but there are times when failure to do so is a complete lapse of duty. Not to mention a violation of the oath of office.

In the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which has more signers from South Carolina than nearly any other state, candidates and incumbents solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases. We’ve heard a lot about this pledge lately because congressional Republicans have cited it as the reason they won’t close tax loopholes or increase taxes on millionaires in order to reduce the federal deficit. This position is irresponsible and should no longer be tolerated.

The U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of South Carolina and other states all require a similar oath when lawmakers are sworn in to office. The federal oath reads as follows: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

When members of Congress promise never to raise taxes, they are promising never to exercise one of the 18 powers granted to the Congress by Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution … no matter the circumstances. What if they swore an oath never to declare war? Never to coin money? Never to run a postal service? Any solemn pledge that runs counter to the duties of Congress is a de facto violation of the oath of office. The same is true for state legislators.

No legislator can faithfully discharge the duties of office if that member refuses even to consider executing the powers specifically granted by the Constitution. It makes no difference whether he swears never to exercise any of the powers, or just one. An unqualified refusal to exercise even one of the powers, regardless of circumstances, is an anticipatory breach of the oath of office.

There’s another way the Taxpayer Protection Pledge runs afoul of the oath of office. Members of Congress swear that they “take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” Collins English Dictionary defines “mental reservation” as “a tacit withholding of full assent or an unexpressed qualification made when one is taking an oath.” A person who has sworn another oath not to discharge one or more powers of Congress cannot honestly swear to have no mental reservations about faithfully discharging the powers of Congress. By signing the pledge, lawmakers have made a public promise to their constituents never to raise taxes; unless they repudiate that pledge, they have an unexpressed qualification (not to raise taxes) when they take the oath of office.

Some members of Congress sign the anti-tax pledge and proclaim their own virtue in defense of taxpayers even as they vote for budgets that outspend revenues and accumulate more debt. This makes about as much sense as pledging never to vote for any federal spending. How could that be in the best interest of any American?

A better pledge would be never to vote in favor of a budget that is not balanced. This would prevent lawmakers from claiming fidelity to a pledge despite having caused a bad outcome for taxpayers. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge may be well-intended, but it is incomplete. It’s time for a better pledge — one that will ensure a stronger and more perfect union.