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National debt-ceiling deal: Why did that take so long?

The haggling over the national debt-ceiling deal exposed a growing issue for Congress: the influence of ideological pledges is limiting prospects for compromise.

By Staff writer / August 2, 2011

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, holds a copy of the antitax pledge that more than 270 members of Congress have signed. The mask on his desk is of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up Britain’s House of Lords in 1605.

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

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The House has passed the debt-ceiling deal. The Senate seems certain to follow suit Tuesday, and the president will sign it into law. For the moment, at least, a potential economic crisis has been averted.

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But should it have taken this long?

Like the budget battle before it, the debt-ceiling crisis revealed that ideological pledges – vows by members of Congress to hold fast to a stated position no matter what – have hardened the extremes on Capitol Hill to the point that compromise is virtually impossible on many pressing issues.

It is one reason that veteran congressional expert Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute calls this the "worst Congress ever."

Congress has already been becoming more polarized in recent years. The last Congress, for instance, featured no ideological overlap whatsoever between the two parties, according to the National Journal – the first time that had occurred in the survey.

Now, a spike in pledges is exacerbating that trend.

The pledges are partly born of the economic climate. With public distrust of Congress running at historic highs, interest groups at both ends of the political spectrum are in a race to pledge members of Congress to permanent policy choices before they set foot in Washington – and to enforce those pledges once they're here. But the pledges are also tied to the Republican rise in the House, since parties out of power are likelier to need pledges to secure donor funding than those in power, say experts. The GOP had been out of power since 2006.

The result is that a critical mass of lawmakers now come to Washington locked into policy positions that encourage partisan gridlock and make it harder for lawmakers to compromise and for Congress to function.

"Such pledges to special interest groups are totally inappropriate and should be rescinded," says David Walker, former US comptroller general and a founding member of No Labels, a bipartisan advocacy group.

Some of the most influential ideological pledges shaping Congress include:

Taxpayer Protection Pledge: Since 1986, the antitax group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) has been collecting conservative signatures on a pledge to oppose all corporate or individual tax increases, including the elimination of any tax break or subsidy "unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates." More than 270 current members of Congress signed the pledge, virtually ensuring that GOP leaders had no room to negotiate a deal on debt reduction that includes savings on the tax side.

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