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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?

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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."

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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.