Magic Words

Are members of Congress getting tired of signing pledges?

Jim DeMint

The senators and representatives signing the “Cap, Cut, and Balance” pledge arrived around the same time. Sen. Rand Paul ushered in his father, Rep. Ron Paul. Sen. Jim DeMint grinned so widely you could see it from the fifth row. Sen. Orrin Hatch walked in late, strolled up to the line of senators, and stood quietly in front of a pack of conservative activists— FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Independent Women’s Voice, Less Government. Some of them are trying to defeat him in 2012. Better take the pledge and take his chances.

The pledge itself is short and radical: three lines, three promises. A signatory won’t raise the debt ceiling unless there’s a deal for “substantial” spending cuts, spending caps, and the passage of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that currently includes supermajority requirements for new tax increases. Ron Paul has signed it. Herman Cain just signed it today.

“There’s an old country song that says if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” said DeMint. “That’s what the American people see when they look at Congress.”

That’s something a few Republicans are tired of hearing. The debt-ceiling pledge is not the first blood oath offered from the conservative movement unto the GOP. It’s the second one this month. Last week, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List introduced a anti-abortion pledge and proclaimed that Republicans who didn’t sign—Jon Huntsman, Cain, Mitt Romney—were more or less raspberrying the “pro-life grass roots.”

Campaigns are inundated with pledges; they get candidate questionnaires like the offices of the New Frontiersmen get unsolicited diaries from strange people. For Republicans, there are pledges to never raise taxes, pledges to repeal the estate tax (or “death tax”), pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

These are ways for candidates to win over interest groups. They’re also traps. The attaboy you get from signing Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge comes with complementary attack ads claiming—not quite incorrectly!—that by doing so, you support “tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas.”

The two new pledges are two fat straws on a camel’s back. Jennifer Rubin has opened all manner of scabs by reporting on dissent from the Susan B. Anthony List’s pledge. Cain didn’t sign it because he wants abortion left up to the states, and all of a sudden he’s a shill for the abortion industry? How’s that fair?

“Herman Cain’s gone off on a tangent,” shrugged Marilyn Musgrave, the former member of the House who runs point on the pledge for the SBA List. “I was a candidate. I had pledges put before me. It’s a commitment, so it’s going to appeal to someone who’s comfortable in her skin. Look, I know there are a lot of people who say they’re pro-life but they’ve never broken a sweat on it. That’s why we want people to sign a pledge.”

Still, there are Republicans who resent this. Really, there aren’t enough litmus tests for candidates? There aren’t enough ways to trip them up and put them in the firing lines of ThinkProgress cameras?

“I would never want a presidential candidate to sign a pledge,” said Rep. Charlie Bass, who as one of the two representatives from New Hampshire will have something to say about the party’s nominee. The president will be “the commander in chief,” he says. “He’s going to make decisions about issues that come out of nowhere. Let’s say—I’m just using this as an example—he signs a ‘no war’ pledge, and then we go to war? No advocacy group should be able to say, ‘The president of the United States will never do something.’ “

There needn’t be downsides. The pledges can be useful for fights over small pieces of territory. June, the month of two new pledges, was also the month that Sen. Tom Coburn tried to show fellow Republicans a way around Norquist’s pledge. The pledge, as written, binds the signatory to “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” Coburn, an erstwhile member of the “Gang of Six” that’s hammering out a debt compromise, tried a test: a vote on ending the ethanol tax credit without giving the savings back as tax cuts.

The fight that ensued was reported as a victory for Coburn. His version of the ethanol amendment passed. But there was a second version, introduced by DeMint, to end the tax credit and apply the savings to—yes—tax cuts. Republicans also backed that one; they were not punished by ATR when the Coburn amendment passed.

“Every pledge taker voted against Coburn,” said Norquist. “Nobody broke the pledge. Our friend Coburn was trying to trick people—’Oh, you voted to end this, so now you’ll support my extra trillion in tax hikes.’ That’s what he said happened. He knows better.”

Today, after Republicans and 47 conservative groups introduced the debt-ceiling pledge, its promoters disagreed about how rigidly it needed to be enforced. Was this already a litmus test? Some candidates don’t sign pledges. Huntsman says he won’t sign a pledge. Sen. Mike Lee told reporters that there was a loophole.

“As long as a presidential candidate will say ‘I don’t support a debt limit increase, and I won’t sign a debt limit increase into effect unless Congress passed a balanced budget amendment,’ ” said Lee, “that would have the same effect, as far as I’m concerned.”

On his way out, reporters asked DeMint if a candidate had to sign this pledge to get his support.

“It’s a deal breaker.”

What if someone agrees to the concept but doesn’t want to sign?

“Not enough,” said DeMint. He slipped into an elevator, and the door closed.