Pledging ourselves out of democracy

May 8, 2012

If anyone were to suggest that members of the House and Senate should abandon their own judgment and instead follow a strict dogma laid down by an outside body, we would be appalled. And if it were proposed that the president should be little more than a rubber stamp to sign any and all legislation presented to him by Congress, we would throw up our hands in horror.

Under the Constitution, members of Congress are representatives of all their constituents, and they are expected to weigh the value of legislation, discuss it, then vote according to their conscience. It is, after all, the House of Representatives, not the Supreme Soviet or the Chinese National People’s Congress. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, didn’t intend congressmen to be mere delegates or toe a line drawn by others.

Since 1978, however, when California passed Proposition 13 to reduce property taxes, this essential element of our democracy has been compromised by those who have tied the hands of lawmakers by having them sign solemn and binding “pledges.” By far the most successful is the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” promoted by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), in which congressional candidates agree in advance of election to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates” and “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” It was Ronald Reagan who in 1986 urged Grover Norquist, president of the ATR, to administer a no-tax-increases pledge, though as president he went on to raise taxes 11 times.

According to ATR, 238 representatives and 41 senators have made the pledge, though some now regret signing it. Of GOP congressmen, 95 percent have promised not to raise taxes in any circumstances. It is this unanimity among Republicans that has led to the end of give-and-take across the aisle in Washington and brought government to a grinding halt.

Other pledges that bind lawmakers include promises to oppose abortions, to ban pornography, to prevent women from fighting in the armed forces, to outlaw Sharia law, to deny gay marriages, to cut and cap public spending, to pass a constitutional amendment demanding a balanced federal budget, to remain faithful to their spouses (good luck with that), and to support “robust childbearing and reproduction” (whatever that is).

Those who dare renege on the pledge not to raise taxes can expect to be targeted by ATR, or, as Norquist so charmingly puts it, for the group to “educate the voters that they raise taxes” and “encourage them to go into another line of work, like shoplifting or bank robbing, where they have to do their own stealing.” One of those on ATR’s hit list is the Republican senator from Indiana for 35 years, Dick Lugar, hardly a liberal, who, having refused to sign the pledge, is currently defending himself from a primary challenge by a Norquist-approved alternative.

So far, so sinister. But Norquist has another adjustment to the Constitution in mind. He wants the majority in Congress to become the main driver of government. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go,” he told the 2012 conservative CPAC conference. “We just need a president to sign this stuff … Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.” His vision of American democracy is something like the British Parliament, with the prime minister backed by a majority in the Commons deciding and the monarch obediently providing.

Norquist is aware that by abandoning the division of powers established by the Founding Fathers and with Congress directing the actions of a compliant chief executive, he is proposing a revolutionary shift in power. “This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills,” he said. “The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.”

So where does this leave Mitt Romney? His working digits dutifully signed Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge, and he has declared that his economic policy is the Paul Ryan austerity plan, which Norquist approves. If Romney is elected along with a Republican majority in both Houses, he can expect to emerge as powerless and politically pointless as Queen Elizabeth. And if he refuses to play along with Norquist, he can expect to be left twiddling his thumbs while America burns, just like President Obama.

PHOTO: Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform founder and president, speaks at the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, February 11, 2011.  REUTERS/Larry Downing


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Outstanding article on a subject that no one has so far dared to touch.

The problem is really with our elected representatives, who take an oath of office to uphold the US Constitution and our present form of government, but then sign personal “pledges” that clearly compromise their oath of office, thus pledging their “fealty” to a person who has total contempt for our government — Mr. Norquist.

Mr. Norquist is NOT an elected official of any kind, but a kind of self-styled “lobbyist”, who wants more than anything else to destroy our government and our way of life.

Mr. Norquist is famously quoted as stating he would like to shrink our government down to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub (and he is quite proud of that remark).

While free speech is enshrined in our constitution, and thus Mr. Norquist has every right to say what he has said, I question the fact that Mr. Norquist has taken overt actions to coerce many members of our government to sign pledges to him personally, requiring that they swear they will not vote to raise taxes.

To me, what Mr. Norquist is doing is clearly treason, and any member of our government who has signed such a pledge in violation of their oath of office has also committed treason.

In effect, members of our own government are pledging allegiance to a private individual who wants to overthrow our government.

I demand to know what our government is going to do about those in public service who are committing treason!

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

American democracy is doing wonderfully well. Norquist wants a one party dictatorship, presumably with his party running the show (the Chinese government provides a good model). The NRA wants to ensure everyone is armed to the gums as soon as they exit the womb. The anti-abortionists, who revere life (at least in the womb), want to kill any woman or doctor who aborts for any reason. The ultra-conservatives want anarchy and the legal right to kill anyone they see as a threat to ?liberty? Much of the right wing wants to bring back good old fashioned discrimination against gays, those welfare cheats who refuse to work, illegal immigrants (or any other kind), Muslims and anyone else they don’t like. And they all want to make the military bigger (this in a country whose military expenditure exceeds almost the rest of the entire world). And the politicians want to bring back the idea that Americans are ‘exceptional’ just because they were born there. America has always had extremists, but it now appears that the lunatics are not only running the asylum, they are franchising the operation.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

For those of you unfamiliar with the treasonous acts of Mr. Norquist, including those members of our government who have openly pledged loyalty to him personally and not the American people, thereby violating their sacred oath of office, I would like to clarify just what I mean:


1. the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign.

2. a violation of allegiance to one’s sovereign or to one’s state.

3. the betrayal of a trust or confidence; breach of faith; treachery.


In addition to treason, I think we can easily add the charge of sedition.


1. incitement of discontent or rebellion against a government.

2. any action, especially in speech or writing, promoting such discontent or rebellion.


These openly defiant acts ARE punishable by law, and I demand to know what our government intends to do about those that have openly displayed either treasonous or seditious behavior!

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

One final thought on this matter.

I am outraged that our government has allowed these increasingly treasonous and seditious acts to continue without taking a single action to stop it.







Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

I always thought Romney was running for Puppet in Chief. Thanks for clarifying where the strings are attached.

The other worst part about all of this is that the people engineering the takeover of the U.S. government appear to have already taken over nearly all of the mainstream media.

Posted by RobinInSanDiego | Report as abusive

Barack Obama made major and and almost willful miscalculations on how virulent the disease is in this democracy. He overcompensated for Bush’s cavalier management style with his own brand of cautious outreach and professorial pontification.

The country’s condition is comparable to the girl with the green skin, the head rotating 360 degrees, the vomiting, the raspy, husky sounding voice, the bloodshot eyes and the rotting brown teeth from the movie The Exorcism.

It’s life imitating art. It used to be art imitating life.

Posted by laguardia23 | Report as abusive

Congress is supposed to pass the laws, not the President. If it was was up to the non-pledged Congress our tax rate would be 50% or even higher.
A good example is the IRS, no one holds them back with pledges and the IRS cares less if they put the little man out of business. In my 70 some years I’ve known plenty of honest small business men who love to file a return so they can grow bigger, but the IRS forced their
business to work under the table with their onerous, frustrating, time consuming audits.

When government isn’t held back you loose it all, freedom, democracy and your business. We all should be thankful to the ATR. As reporter you work for someone and receive a fat paycheck, but you have absolutely no idea what life is really like for many productive individuals. I knew a 68 year old who didn’t want to be on Welfare. The IRS made his life miserable – blind as he is – he did his best, while conglomerates for whom you work for keep their money overseas. YES, we need ATF to keep government in check. And we another ATF, one
to keep all those bureaucratic institutions Congress created in check.
You people haven’t been around the world and are speaking only from your own unrealistic fantasy.

Posted by dddavid | Report as abusive

It may be that we are at the point of a cycle in history that physical confrontation occures.

There will be a point that American citizens will rise against this restrictive, excessive greed ideology.

I am confident, and history has shown that progressive thought and action is sustainable.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Since I first became aware of the “Pledge” issue I wondered how it was possible for a member of Congress to both sign a plege for or against something and take the Oath of Office for Congress. Thanks to my good Jesuit education I can not see how a member of Congress can morally and legally sign a pledge for or against something and then take an Oath of Office that states that “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” they will faithfully “discharge the duties of their office” The solution of this “pledge” problem can be found in the Oath Of Office pledge. A member of Congress must make only one pledge and that is is to uphold the Constitution. If the member wants to sign many pledges they must remove themselves from their office.

Posted by mr.books | Report as abusive

Something has to give, our government cannot and will not continue as it stands. I predict it will be the Republican party. The more absurd they get, the more they hasten their own demise — there’s only so many bigoted people that will vote for them no matter what. So here’s to you, Mr. Norquist, because getting an entire party to sign a pledge to a lobbyist is indeed absurd (also treasonous/seditious).

As soon as that sham of a party goes away, a legitimate conservative party can form in its absence and our government can return to a functioning state.

I guess I’d describe my political orientation as “market fundamentalist”. I believe that the free market is a tool that can be used to solve most of our problems. The government’s primary job is make sure these markets are functioning efficiently, transparently and fairly. The gov should avoid interfering with them at all costs because it ultimately leads to inefficiencies. That’s kind of the textbook definition of a “conservative” in economic terms. But I just can’t bring myself to vote for this bunch of yahoos we call Republicans. All they do is spend on the military, protect pet tax breaks and try to revive social conservatism. I mean, has anyone told them what year it is?

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive

Plutocracy. That’s the word we are looking for.

Posted by krimsonpage | Report as abusive

Great op/ed Mr. Wapshott. And the truth is that it goes much further than just these pledges. The pledges are just one of many tactics being used to take over the country by the right. They are also trying to take away bargaining rights from labor unions and making it harder to for them to raise money from their members; many Republican state legislatures have passed photo id laws to reduce the number of voters that traditionally vote Democratic (if this wasn’t their primary goal, each state that passed such a law would have included in the law a simple and cost-free way for voters to obtain photo id cards. This wasn’t done in any state, because that would be defeating the purpose of the bill.); the conservative Supreme Court has ruled that money = free speech and that corporations are people. (If money = free speech than speech is no longer free, no?) The Citizens United ruling makes it easy for wealthy special interests to buy our government. And then there’s the Republicans’ organized resistance to oppose anything and everything related to Obama or the Democrats, regardless of a proposal’s merits. They won’t confirms Obama’s political and judicial appointments. The Senate filibusters everything the Democrats propose. The level of civility has fallen into the gutter, where the President of the United States is called a liar during the State of the Union and instead of being censured, the Republican Congressman is rewarded by huge campaign donations. Mediocre, has-been rocker Ted Nugent makes an implied threat on the President’s life; the numbers of rightwing militias have burgeoned like we’ve never seen before. It goes on and on and on.

And I haven’t even mentioned one of our biggest problems, the “news” media whose interests are monetary and therefore 1. must avoid offending people, so everything has to be made to appear even even when it’s not, and 2. the media, particularly radio and television, makes enormous profits from political campaigning and, therefore, we can’t expect a serious questioning of our current means of funding political campaign–and we need to.

It’s ugly and I think it’s going to get a heck of a lot worse before it gets any better. The right appears willing to sink the ship if they can’t get everything they want. They almost forced our nation into defaulting on our debt obligations and that would have been an unmitigated disaster. It’s not like things have mellowed out since then.

Kudos to Pseudo Turtle and steve778936 for your excellent comments.

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