Every other January, Washington is witness to the swearing in of a new congress – a sort of biennial renewal of our constitutional experiment. The oath of office is rather simple:
“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
Nowhere in those 71 words does it say “and I will abdicate my duty to think for myself by signing a host of partisan pledges and then hiding behind them in times of crisis.”
Let me start by admitting the obvious – when I ran for congress I signed the anti-tax pledge. I remain today opposed to increasing most taxes, but I also have the benefit now of experience to see that some taxes – like Reagan raising liquid fuels taxes – are necessary. So, while I remain philosophically opposed to most increased taxes, I am not hidebound to opposing all “revenue enhancements” – especially when a pledge requires a need to cut taxes in order to get rid of inefficient tax policies like ethanol subsidies.
But even more than my subtle disagreements with one pledge, the recent proliferation of such pledges – and the use of failure to sign the same as a bludgeon against a candidate for office – got me thinking: aren’t we supposed to be electing people who can think for themselves and judge changing circumstances absent absolutist pledges that confine appropriate actions?
Put another way, isn’t the act of signing a pledge to NEVER do anything so inherently political as raising the debt limit or changing tax policy – in essence – a “mental reservation” on a member’s ability to act?
I am not suggesting that it is a violation of the letter of the oath, but it certainly appears to be a limit on the spirit of a deliberative body open to discussion and, ultimately, compromise – compromises that rarely allow for absolutist positions. And the signing of a pledge – whether it is against raising taxes or against changing Medicare – is a coward’s way out.
I say this because it sets up the “straw fort,” a variation on the “straw man.” The “straw fort” works like this: politician signs a pledge to not change Medicare in any way; minutes later they see President Obama admit that, absent changes, Medicare will go bankrupt; regardless, the politician votes against any changes – and hides behind the pledge. In essence the pledge gives cover to not put up a tough vote — a fictional cover that is no more valid than blocking the repeal of ethanol subsidies (that really bugs me as a conservative) because of an anti-tax pledge.
It is an act of political cowardice – and one that both sides appear to be expanding, as pledges are popping up everywhere.
It’s a shame – and it’s going to weaken us as a nation. The less we ask members of congress to think for themselves (I know this is counter-intuitive), the worse the resulting policy – simply because we limit the range of ideas offered and considered.
The framers intended a congress of competing ideas and attitudes crashing together to form rational middle ground policy; pledges prevent that and betray our political heritage.
After all, can we really call the US Congress the world’s greatest deliberative body if all of the tough decisions are made absent deliberation?
Photo by US Marshals Office of Public Affairs
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