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Activist groups, distrustful of candidates, push for pre-election pledges

Many grass-roots activists want candidates to sign pledges to, say, undo health-care reform. Will such pledges tie lawmakers' hands later, or improve accountability?

By Staff writer / October 27, 2010

The 45-page Pledge to America booklet unveiled by House Republican leaders in September, outlined the party's agenda to repeal the health care law.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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Campaign promises are made – and broken – often enough, but what about the campaign "pledge"?

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Activist groups, especially on the political right, are more zealous this election year in pushing House and Senate candidates to sign on the dotted line in exchange for their endorsements. The aim: to define specific expectations for lawmakers – and to be able to hold these officials accountable for their actions when the next election rolls around.

It's a pledge drive born of distrust. Tea party and other conservative grass-roots activists are riled about the expansion of government under President Obama. But they also look back at the 12 years of Republican control of the House of Representatives and deplore broken promises, runaway spending, and "pork barrel" projects.

VIDEO: Voices of the tea party

"When you have trust at historic low levels, that's a prompt to folks to be creative and find new ways to try to find foolproof ways to nail down people on these promises," says Michael Franc, vice president for government relations for the Heritage Foundation.

The pledges, too, are more concrete and verifiable this election year. Incumbents and challengers are being required, say, not only to vote to repeal the new health-care reform law, but also to reject every effort to fund it. On the political left, activists want candidates to pledge to defend Social Security not only from privatization plans but also from any delay or reduction in benefits.

Pledge proponents see the tactic as a way to prevent politicians from evading their pledges via a simply symbolic vote. But critics say the pledge proliferation could contribute to even more gridlock in the next Congress, especially on how to rein in the rampaging US budget deficit.

"A lot of the pledges have been extreme in what they are asking politicians to commit to, such as totally taking the idea of revenue increases off the table," says Tamara Draut, vice president at Demos, a public-interest group that promotes rebuilding the middle class. "The result will be a gridlocked democracy. It's governing by sound bite instead of a serious dialogue and deliberation about solving the one problem that has captured the imagination of the tea party and others: addressing projected deficits in the future."

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