Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Revenge of the pledge-keepers

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on July 20, 2011.

<drop_initial>IT’S FAR TOO early for most of us to settle on a favorite Republican presidential candidate, but given the problems that have been exacerbated in South Carolina and in Washington by special-interest groups’ relentless pursuit of political blood oaths, it’s worth noting that one candidate has refused to play the pledge-keepers’ game: former Utah Gov. and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman.

The proliferation of political pledges has taken on new currency since Sen. Jim DeMint launched a bid last month to take his place alongside interest loophole-preserver Grover Norquist as a pledge puppet master. Mr. DeMint is demanding that politicians sign his “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge, to oppose raising the federal debt ceiling until the Congress votes to cut spending, impose a spending cap and pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that requires a balanced budget and “a super-majority for raising taxes” — in other words, a constitutional requirement that the minority set federal tax policy.

So far, the presumed powerbroker for the crucial first-in-the-South presidential primary has obtained the obeisance of nine presidential candidates, but just 12 U.S. senators and 38 House members. He also has gotten five governors to sign on the undotted line, which doesn’t make a lot of sense since governors have no control over federal spending. It’s more nonsensical still that the mini-parade of state officials was led off by our own Gov. Nikki Haley, since the only thing governors can do — “everything in my power to support ratification” — seems both unnecessary given the near certainty that our General Assembly would immediately ratify such an amendment and unimpressive given the rapidly dwindling influence that Ms. Haley has with said General Assembly.

For that matter, if the actual intent is to accomplish the pledge’s stated goals, it’s hard to see why anyone would bother with presidential candidates: The decision on the debt ceiling has to be made in the next two weeks — long before they have any authority to do anything about it.

But as a Huntsman loyalist reminded me, pledges aren’t about getting things done. “The reality is that pledges are far more about the organization sponsoring them, which gets a lot of press because of all the people who sign the pledge,” he said. “This is less about the presidential campaign than about Jim DeMint.”

When Mr. DeMint stood with a handful of other members of Congress and 42 lobbying groups to unveil their “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge last month, Mr. Huntsman politely declined to sign it. Mr. DeMint pointedly declined to support Mr. Huntsman, telling CNN’s “State of the Union”: “I won’t support any candidate who does not support balancing the budget. … So for me, he’s out.”

Of course, Mr. Huntsman never said he opposed a balanced-budget amendment. To the contrary. During a swing through the Upstate last week, he said that while he supports all the elements of the DeMint pledge, “I don’t sign pledges — other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife.”

In this he is channeling 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who rejected all the pledges, including Mr. Norquist ’s granddaddy of blood oaths, to never, ever raise any tax — or eliminate any special-interest tax loophole, like, say, the obscene ethanol subsidies that Sen. McCain has fought so long to do away with.

Steve Duprey, who worked on the McCain presidential campaign, recently told The Boston Globe that the senator received hundreds of pledge requests and thought it was “not appropriate for someone running for president to sign pledges for different interest groups. Look at his record, look at what he says, if it’s not good enough for you, don’t vote for him.”

I suspect that both Mr. Huntsman and Mr. McCain took the anti-pledge-pledge out of self-defense as much as principle: If you sign one pledge, all the pledge-keepers you reject will say you oppose their pledges. These days, even a state legislative candidate could easily spend all of his time doing nothing but reviewing and signing pledges. Among the high-profile pledges GOP presidential candidates have been asked to sign this year are a 14-point “marriage vow,” a four-point “pro-life leadership presidential pledge” and a deficit-reduction promise tied to the “Lean Six Sigma” method of reducing wasteful spending.

But there’s an important principle involved as well: Pledging to do or not do anything important is an abdication of elected officials’ duty to examine the issues before them and make their own decisions on behalf of their constituents. And it makes it impossible for officials to govern in a changing world. Imagine the pledges some politicians might have signed before 9/11 — and how that could have prevented them from taking necessary actions to protect our nation after the attacks “changed everything.”

In South Carolina, pledges have prevented our Legislature from addressing such fundamental problems as a school funding system that shortchanges children in poor schools and a criminal justice system that diverts huge amounts of money from positive initiatives so we can lock up more prisoners than any other state. When you sign away your right to consider all your options, when you are bound by uninformed opinions, when you take directions from people whose primary purpose is to maintain power and defeat those who don’t think exactly as they do, rather than taking advantage of different points of view to come up with the best solutions, then you can’t even imagine the complex solutions to our state’s interwoven ills, much less enact them.

The no-new-taxes pledge that Mr. Norquist enforces through his Americans for Tax Reform is particularly troublesome, and not just because of the role it has played in keeping the Congress from passing a debt-reduction package that includes huge spending cuts and long-overdue entitlement reforms. Because he has appointed himself judge and jury of what is and isn’t a tax increase, often using the finest Clintonian hair-splitting, federal and state lawmakers have learned they must vet any tax proposals with their Potomac puppet master.

A few years back, Mr. Norquist torpedoed an unvetted proposal from his beloved Mark Sanford to raise the nation’s lowest cigarette tax in return for phasing out the state income tax, because the tax hike was immediate, and the (much larger) income tax cut could be stalled or reversed in later years. Comprehensive tax reform always has been at best a long-shot with our Legislature. But when Mr. Norquist took that position in the state with the largest number of legislative pledge-signers in the nation, he quashed any hopes of real reform, since real reform by definition must include raising some taxes while lowering others.

In the wake of Mr. DeMint’s pledge roll-out, the inside-the-Beltway newspaper Politico found several conservative lawmakers who were thumbing their nose at the latest must-sign document, and speculated that this could be the “pledge fatigue” straw that propels the spread of the McCain/Huntsman approach. If so, then our junior senator will have done far more to help our nation than he ever could have anticipated.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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