Did Rep. Timothy Johnson pledge to constituents that he would never vote to raise their taxes?
Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax group headed by Grover Norquist, lists the Illinois Republican as one of 238 House Members who have signed its Taxpayer Protection Pledge, in which lawmakers vow to “oppose any and all efforts” to raise tax rates.
But now Johnson, who faces a new, more Democratic district thanks to redistricting, said it’s “disingenuous and irresponsible” for lawmakers to make such a vow.
At a town hall in Normal, Ill., on Feb. 23, Johnson denied ever signing such a pledge to a constituent in what the Pantagraph newspaper called a “heated exchange.”
Asked about the report, Johnson initially told Roll Call, “I never signed anything,” and he said he would “look at” contacting Norquist’s group to correct its list.
In the middle of the interview, Johnson called his chief of staff, Mark Shelden, to double-check. After the call, he maintained that he hadn’t signed the pledge, saying, “I haven’t communicated with them nor did I ever sign anything.”
However, Americans for Tax Reform provided Roll Call with a copy of Johnson’s signature on the tax pledge from 2002.
On Feb. 26, 2002, Johnson pledged to “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.”
Matt Bisbee, Johnson’s press secretary at the time, signed as a witness.
In a phone interview after Roll Call sent a copy of the document to Shelden, Johnson conceded he had signed the pledge but said it was no longer binding for him.
“I would never in a million years have considered this as some kind of a locked-in-granite pledge. Frankly, I didn’t even remember it. That shows you how obscure it was to me,” Johnson said.
“My understanding was then, as I remember it, and certainly now, is that nobody could possibly ever in a million years, in their wildest imagination, expect you to sign something that was right before a primary election and then you’d be locked in on that position the whole rest of your career. Particularly something like taxes and particularly when the national debt 10 and a half years ago was $6 trillion and now it’s going to be $17 trillion.”
Johnson said it was “probably” someone from his office who actually signed the pledge, not him, but that was not “particularly relevant. ... I’m not going to deny it.”
Johnson argued the issue of taxes is one where changing circumstances are relevant.
“As I recall, and again, this was something 10 and a half years ago, the wording was, ‘I won’t vote for any marginal rate increases’ and so forth. Presumably, most Members of Congress plan to be there more than one cycle. So nobody could lock themselves in perpetuity into a position like that. That’s like saying you’d never vote for armed intervention in a foreign country, until we get attacked.”
He also noted he hadn’t voted to raise taxes and had no immediate plans to do so.
“I’m not saying I’m even committed now to a tax increase, but I think anybody who doesn’t indicate their willingness to look at revenues — expiration of tax loopholes, tax credits, increase in contribution to Social Security, which is a tax, and otherwise — would be disingenuous and irresponsible,” Johnson said.
Norquist had a different view. “This doesn’t pass the laugh test,” he said, describing the pledge as a “simple declarative statement” that inherently applies “as long as you’re in Congress.”
Norquist said the pledge originated as a way for lawmakers to credibly promise to voters that they wouldn’t raise taxes and wasn’t just a temporary stance to get them through a difficult re-election.
Johnson said his position now wasn’t related to his new, more Democratic district. And he said signing it in 2002 wasn’t related to that upcoming primary election because no one challenged him in the primary.
Also, Johnson said, 2002 is a long time ago. “Ten and a half years ago, that’s a long time. That’s 20 percent of my life!”
Finally, he described being inundated with requests for stances on positions from interest groups during a campaign.
“You don’t know, I guess you’re not on this end of receiving it, but when you’re a candidate for office, particularly the United States Congress, we probably get, I don’t know how to estimate, but 400 to 500 questionnaires, pledges, statements and so forth on an endless variety of issues that come to us all the time,” Johnson said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.