Pledging ourselves out of democracy

By Nicholas Wapshott
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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