Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform have wielded a powerful pledge for a generation, a pledge that became obligatory for most Republican candidates and some Democrats running in conservative strongholds.
It reads like this:
"I, ______, pledge to the taxpayers of the ______ district of the state of ______ and to the American people that I will:
"One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
"Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."
The pledge has played its part in the fierce resistance of congressional Republicans over the last few years to any rollback in the "temporary" Bush era tax cuts.
But some lawmakers are awakening to the need to walk away from the pledge, despite Norquist's claim that the pledge is a promise to the constituents who voted for them, one that binds them for as long as they are in office.
Not so, say lawmakers like Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Asked about her view of the pledge, which she signed before her first full term in Senate, Murkowski said her answer is in a letter she wrote to Norquist in November 2011:
"Dear Mr. Norquist,
"Just as the U.S. Constitution prescribes that Senators shall be elected for terms of six years, pledges I sign only cover the six year term (proceeding my signing). Thus the pledge I signed in 2003 is no longer valid. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
"Lisa A. Murkowski
"United States Senator"
Alaska Rep. Don Young, another lawmaker who once signed the tax pledge, doesn't feel bound either.
"Regarding pledges, Congressman Young's only pledges are to the Constitution and the people of Alaska," Luke Miller, his spokesman, wrote in an email Tuesday.
In recent days, other Republican lawmakers like Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina have suggested they might wiggle on their Norquist pledges if President Obama and Senate Democrats are willing to talk about spending cuts and reforms in entitlements, primarily Medicare and Medicaid.
Some more independent lawmakers never embraced the Norquist pledge and refused to be cowed by his threats of running hard-right candidates against them in primaries. Former Republican Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, no tax-and-spend liberal, dismissed Norquist's pledge as "no taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell."
Others, like House minority leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, have said the pledge is a big deal in D.C. but not among the folks back home.
Chambliss, Graham and Rep. Peter King of New York, who invoked the one-term rule like Murkowski and was accused by Norquist of "weaseling," have made clear that their oath of office trumps any tax pledge and their highest obligation is to the good of the country.
That's the right course. None of these lawmakers is a champion of tax increases. But those thinking clearly and honestly understand that the United States can't wrestle its debt under control without both spending cuts and tax increases. What if Democrats had signed pledges never to cut a penny from Medicaid, Medicare or any social program?
What would we have? Absolute and perpetual legislative paralysis. Or, to put it another way, insanity.
Both cuts and taxes need to be done with care. Tax increases need to start at the top. Both sides need to compromise. That's clearly the wish of well more than half the American people.
Pledges born of rigid ideology only hobble the people elected to find answers that work, while the ideologues bask in their self-destructive self-righteousness - enjoying power unburdened by duty or accountability.
Republicans who violate the Norquist pledge won't become Democrats. But they may become problem-solvers, with a wider view of the national interest and a determination to put the nation's finances back on solid footing by recognizing that half the country thinks Grover Norquist's pledge is a waste of good paper.
The good of the country comes before an anti-tax pledge.