Politicians pledge and vow their way to financial ruin

A near-majority of incumbents and candidates have sworn, vowed, or pledged either that they won't raise taxes or that they won't reduce Social Security or Medicare. Sometimes both.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP / File
On Sept. 23, House Minority Leader John Boehner rolled out the Republicans' "Pledge to America" in Sterling, Va. Candidates on both sides of the aisle have pledged, vowed, and sworn to keep taxes low and benefits high. Taxpayers like the message, but how will it be paid for?

Three-quarters of Americans believe that entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security “will create major economic problems” over the next 25 years. But two-thirds are opposed to addressing these challenges by reducing benefits, and 56 percent are against raising taxes.

And congressional candidates, who read the polls, are scrambling to pander to the free-lunch beliefs of their respective bases. As a result, they are locking themselves into opposing both reductions in future benefits and tax increases.

Houston, we have a problem.

The poll results are from a new USA Today/Gallup survey, but they track other recent research. Even after decades of Inside-the-Beltway entitlement talk, very little has registered with real people. Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt. And the result is an exceedingly dangerous political climate in which the nation must try to address its long-term fiscal problems.

The Gallup poll shows the usual partisan divide over both the definition of the problem and potential solutions. Eighty-six percent of Republicans surveyed believe entitlements will cause big trouble, but only 69 percent of Democrats agree. And entirely predictably, more Republicans (41 percent) want to cut benefits than do Democrats (22 percent) or independents (32 percent). By contrast, tax increases are backed by 60 percent of Democrats but only half as many Republicans and 40 percent of independents.

The only good news in this poll is that 62 percent of respondents do want to do something about the entitlement problem. The very bad news is that an overwhelming 88 percent oppose the solution backed by nearly all policy wonks, which is to mix tax hikes with benefit reductions.

This means there will be no solution to the nation’s long-run fiscal problems unless politicians are brave enough to buck these public perceptions. Yet, at least in high election season, pols are being anything but.

Republicans, as they have for years, are increasingly locking themselves into opposition to any tax hikes in any circumstances. Americans for Tax Reform claims that 205 House candidates and 36 Senate candidates, and 174 sitting House members and 34 sitting senators (there is obviously some overlap here) have signed its anti-tax pledge—no tax rate hikes under any circumstances, and no reduction in deductions or credits without offsetting cuts in rates.

Now Democrats have a pledge of their own. A liberal group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee claims that 237 Democrats, including 11 Senate candidates, 81 House candidates, 12 sitting senators, and 133 incumbent House members have signed its vow to “oppose any cuts to Social Security.”

We’ll see how many of these candidates win, but it is entirely possible that close to a majority of House members have already vowed to neither raise taxes nor reduce promised Social Security benefits—three months before a new Congress is even sworn in.

Okay, we won't touch Social Security and won't raise taxes. What about Medicare? You guessed it. There's another pledge. Republicans, in an effort to attract seniors, are trying to position themselves as protectors of Medicare against those dastardly Democrats who want to constrain the future growth of that program. So the House Republicans Pledge to America blasts the “massive Medicare cuts” in the new health law and vows to repeal them, along with the rest of the measure. All while balancing the budget, of course.

Over the next couple of months, we are going to see at least two bipartisan commissions attempt to thread the needle on deficit reduction. Between polls and pledges, they’ve got quite a chore ahead of them.

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