Debt-Ceiling Debate: Pledge Not to Raise Taxes Paralyzes Both Parties

Vows like the no-new-taxes promise can stop politicians from making the right decision.

Weary of wily politicians who say one thing and do another, voters and advocacy groups insist presidential contenders commit to the cause du jour in writing, but candidates are foolish to comply. Words matter. He (or she) who controls the message has the power. And candidates can get trapped in words that are not their own.

In signing the “Marriage Vow” pledge drafted by a conservative Iowa organization called the Family Leader, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were sucked into a riptide “debate” about slavery—from words written by the group not in the pledge itself but in the preamble—which led to ludicrous headlines like “Does Bachmann Believe Slavery Had Advantages?”

Whether it’s the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, the Marriage Vow, the Susan B. Anthony List’s Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge, or the pledge by Democrats in the House of Representatives to oppose any cuts to any social welfare program in any budget or in any bill, the wording in pledges can be parsed six ways to Sunday and used as weapons by the opposition or as cattle prods by the base.

But the far greater danger pledges pose is the potential limitation placed on the candidate’s ability to make the right decisions once in office.

More than 230 current members of the House and Senate have signed Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes. In the ongoing deficit and debt-ceiling debate, this forces some options off the table. Otherwise rational leaders must now resort to the very verbal contortions voters despise. Is allowing a tax break to expire the same thing as raising taxes? Or is the elimination of a tax deduction the same? Well, it again depends on what the meaning of “is” is. And leaders in both parties seem powerless to make the right decision, paralyzed by fear that a pledge will be flung back as a broken promise, placing reelection in peril. Think: "Read my lips."

Ideological purity in politics, to quote Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, “is a dead-dog loser.”

GOP candidates and Congress alike need look no further than President Obama to understand the danger of pledges. During the campaign, then-candidate Obama pledged to close Guantánamo, end the wars, lower health-care costs, and create 2.5 million jobs by January 2011. His base believed but is now disheartened. According to The Washington Post: “The number of liberal Democrats who strongly support Obama’s record on jobs plunged 22 points from 53 percent last year to 31 percent. The number of African Americans who believe the president’s actions have helped the economy has dropped from 77 percent in October to just over half of those surveyed.” It’s never as easy to implement change as it is to promise. And Obama’s summer of discontent continues.

Advocacy groups and voters are not wrong to push candidates to declare their position clearly on policy issues. That is good citizenship. Hard questions should be asked of every candidate, every politician. And those public servants should be prepared to answer, but in their own words. Forcing candidates to sign omnibus pledges helps create the very creature voters distrust—a politician who says one thing and then does another. No wonder only 6 percent of likely voters think Congress is doing a good job.

At the transpartisan organization No Labels, dedicated to problem solving and progress over politics and partisanship, we believe there should be “No Pledges.” The only pledge candidates should make is allegiance to the country. They should be bound only by “the chains of the Constitution,” not the words of a pledge. And they should then be prepared to defend their every decision as circumstances and knowledge change.