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.

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images
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.
John Sommers II/Reuters/File
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky signed a pledge to repeal the inheritance tax during a campaign stop last fall.

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.

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"Such pledges to special interest groups are totally inappropriate and should be rescinded," says David Walker, former US comptroller general and a founding member of No Labels, a bipartisan advocacy group.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

Cut, Cap, and Balance Pledge: Thirty-nine House Republicans, 12 senators, and 9 GOP presidential candidates backed a "cut, cap, and balance" pledge that commits lawmakers to opposing any plan to raise the debt ceiling that does not include major spending cuts, enforceable spending caps, and congressional passage of a balanced budget amendment, including a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. Twenty-eight of the 39 kept their pledges and voted against the debt-limit increase on Monday.

Social Security protection pledge: One-hundred-and-twenty-three Democratic members of Congress – 11 senators and 112 House members – have pledged to defend Social Security from privatization, an increase in the retirement age, and cuts in benefits. The pledge is backed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an online activist group that also funds ad campaigns.

Abortion and marriage pledges: Pledges favoring or opposing abortion rights helped turn Senate judicial confirmation hearings, once largely bipartisan, into toxic partisan fights. Recently, The Marriage Vow created controversy for some GOP presidential hopefuls over a statement in its preamble that favorably compared family life under slavery to conditions facing poor black children in America today. The 12-point pledge commits presidential candidates to opposing same-sex marriage, women in combat roles, sharia (Islamic) law, pornography, and infidelity to marriage vows, and to supporting judicial nominees in line with the pledge.

Only 6 percent of Americans – a new low – say that Congress is doing a good or excellent job, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national poll. Eighty-five percent say that lawmakers are more interested in helping their own careers than in helping voters. Even members of Congress are publicly sharing a low opinion of their own party colleagues.

"Bizarro," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, as he let loose on members of his own party who pledged to oppose raising the debt limit unless Congress also passes a balanced budget amendment.

"What is really amazing about this is that some – some members are believing that we can pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in this body with its present representation, and that is foolish," he said on the floor of the Senate on July 27. "Maybe some people who have only been in this body for six or seven months or so really believe that. Others know better."

Enforcers of pledges on both sides of the aisle took high-profile roles in the fight to raise the national debt limit. ATR president Grover Norquist personally lobbied members of Congress, threatening to publicly expose those who violated their antitax pledge to constituents.

When Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, a leading conservative, endorsed using tax revenues to lower deficits, Mr. Norquist challenged him for going back on his pledge. "You're cheating the people of Oklahoma," he said.

Conservatives still recall what happened when President Reagan in 1982 and President Bush in 1990 agreed to raise taxes in exchange for significant spending cuts. The cuts never materialized.

It's no accident that most of these pledges are on the right, given that House Republicans have spent most of the past 60 years out of power, says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"There are two kinds of money: access money and belief money," he says, citing former top GOP operative Haley Barbour, now governor of Mississippi. Access to a party out of power "isn't worth anything, so you have to get belief money that gets leveraged to people who have strong beliefs," he adds.

Hence the proliferation of pledges to interest groups, often tied to promises of support.

In addition, the proliferation of social networking has amplified the power of special interests to enforce pledges. "It's death for a politician to break a pledge," says John Ullyot, a former senior Senate aide now with Hill and Knowlton, a consultancy in Washington. "As a result, it's tougher and tougher for members of Congress to buck their party on almost any high-profile vote."

It's that combination of sharp ideological difference and intense partisanship that makes the difficulties of the current Congress so difficult to resolve.

"If it were just ideological differences, you could adjust the policy choices, but if there's an incentive to disagree for broader electoral reasons, that's just very difficult to solve," says Sarah Binder, a congres-sional expert at the Brookings Institution and George Washington University.

While previous Congresses were able to use more spending to build bipartisan compromises, the current focus on spending cuts has deprived current lawmakers of that option.

"Congress is going through some growing pains," says Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, who recalls protracted and deeply divisive battles over civil rights. "All of us tend to forget [about] when we were having divisive arguments, fights back in the 1950s.... Those things happened before the Internet, before the advent of talk radio. We'll work through this."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.