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

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    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.
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    Republican candidate for US Senate Rand Paul signed a pledge to repeal the ‘death’ tax during a campaign stop at Atlas Machine and Supply Inc. in Louisville, Ky., Oct. 21. Political groups on both sides are trying to get candidates to sign pledges before Nov. 2.
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Campaign promises are made – and broken – often enough, but what about the campaign "pledge"?

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.

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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."

IN PICTURES: Election Photos of the Week 10/17 - 10/24

Of course, Republican officials have themselves sought to define the party's agenda and whip up voter support for it. The 1994 Contract With America – endorsed by most Republicans running for House seats that year – is the most famous example. This year, House Republicans have offered Pledge to America, which includes a plan to "repeal a government takeover of health care."

But pledges created by officialdom are not cutting it for many voters in 2010. In a deliberate reversal of that approach, tea party activists launched their own Contract From America that aims to get candidates and lawmakers to commit to a plan developed by the grass roots.

"After the TARP [bank rescue] vote, the auto bailout, it's obvious they had lost their way," says Ryan Hecker, a Houston attorney and tea party activist. "From my perspective, we weren't being represented anymore."

Some 912 tea party groups have rallied around Contract From America, which citizens debated and refined over the Internet. It calls for imposing a statutory cap on the annual increase in federal spending (equal to the sum of inflation plus the percentage of population growth). It puts a moratorium on all "earmarks," or lawmaker pet projects, until the federal budget is balanced. Moreover, it requires a balanced budget, with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike. Signatories include about 200 people running for House seats, 27 for Senate, and 4 for governor.

On the Democratic side, activists are urging candidates to sign a pledge to resist any reductions in Social Security benefits. Aware that Mr. Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is looking at the financial health of the retiree program, among other things, they want to show the strength of congressional opposition to any benefit cuts before the commission issues its report on Dec. 1. The pledges could be valuable, too, when commission recommendations come to a vote, perhaps before the new Congress convenes in January.

"We are in a deficit-reduction climate, and we only have so much leverage," says Frank Clemente, who is organizing the pledge drive for Social Security Works and the Strengthen Social Security Campaign. "The campaign is to get [congressional candidates] locked in on this thing." As of Oct. 20, 237 Democratic candidates, including 133 current members of Congress, had signed a pledge to prevent changes in Social Security, including privatization.

Pledges are also being used as weapons by the other side.

Exhibit A is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, first launched in 1986 by Americans for Tax Reform, an antitax group. Signed by the most Republican candidates since the Reagan era, the pledge commits them to oppose any increase in the marginal income-tax rate for individuals and businesses and any elimination of tax deductions or credits "unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."

Citing this pledge, Democrat Mark Critz came from behind to win a May special election in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District by claiming that his GOP rival supported firms that outsource US jobs. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is now sponsoring ads in 21 close House races that make the same claim.

The claim is deemed false by public-interest group FactCheck.org. "Democrats and their allies can't get enough of the Americans for Tax Reform tax pledge – which, as we've reported, they've falsely equated in a number of ads with 'protecting tax loopholes for companies that ship jobs overseas,' " according to an Oct. 20 post on FactCheck.org.

"It's absolutely fair," DCCC chairman and Rep. Chris Van Hollen countered at an Oct. 21 Monitor breakfast with reporters. "Republicans have voted nine times in the House to keep those subsidies for offshoring American jobs."

The Democrats' tactic has prompted Americans for Tax Reform to run new ad campaigns to undo the damage. "It's a lie to say that if you're for the pledge you're for every tax cut that ever existed," says Grover Norquist, president of the antitax group. "We're pushing back. We're spending in a fair number of districts to draw blood if they make that case."

As for pledges to undo health-care reform, the aim is to prepare for any eventuality, says Heather Higgins, president and chief executive officer of Independent Women's Voices. Her group, along with American Majority Action, launched a pledge drive in September to get candidates to promise to do "everything they can to make repeal a reality."

Even if Congress does repeal the law, Obama is sure to veto that effort, she says. Thus, sponsors want candidates to commit to systematically defund the reform, step by step. To date, 65 Republican incumbents and challengers have signed the pledge.

VIDEO: Voices of the tea party

IN PICTURES: Election Photos of the Week 10/17 - 10/24

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