News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

December 2, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Members of Congress should be free to consider all sides of an issue

Attempting to trump the U.S. Constitution requires some nerve.

The venerable document already spells out the vow expected of members of Congress. Those legislators “shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution.”

Seems rather clear.

Congress put that demand into a full sentence, suitable for a swearing-in ceremony. Aside from a Civil War-era revision, it’s pretty much remained focused on that single, yet comprehensively sufficient charge. Since 1884, the oath has read: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

Apparently, special interest groups can do better.

Since 1986, Washington lobbyist Grover Norquist and the Americans for Tax Reform have solicited U.S. senators and representatives to sign the “Federal Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” That oath has evolved into a litmus test of conservatism for Republicans.

Like most special-interest group oaths circulated through Congress, the Norquist pledge forces its signers to function with one group of Americans prioritized over another. Strict adherence to it prevents real compromise to the “fiscal cliff” situation — involving deep, automatic spending cuts and tax increases imposed as penalties for the ongoing federal budget gridlock, unless Congress can resolve its differences before New Year’s Day.

Norquist and his supporters assert that signers are not pledging to him or his group, but to the American people, thanks to four words included in its text. Yet, as Mitt Romney so eloquently reminded his benefactors, 47 percent of the nation’s citizens don’t pay taxes, and Norquist’s document is called the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” It reads: I, (state your name), pledge to the taxpayers of the (local congressional) district of the state of (state your state) and to the American people that I will: One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Fiscal prudence can be exercised without signing a no-tax-increase pledge. Indiana’s Richard Lugar did so for almost four decades in the Senate. Lugar contended that special-interest pledges tie lawmakers’ hands. In the summer of 2011, as Congress stood frozen during negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling to pay its bills, Lugar pointed out that many of his pledge-signing colleagues “said they are not in a position to vote for any plan.”

More than a year later, the consequence of those dug-in heels leaves the toes of the American economy gripping the fiscal cliff. That predicament, coupled with the results of last month’s election, has several congressional Republicans backing away from Norquist. Americans are concerned about the impact of a continued impasse inflicting an estimated $500-billion to $800-billion gash in the economy. Sixty-two percent of the public thinks the cliff would have a negative effect on the economy, and 60 percent say it would damage their personal finances, according to a Pew Research Center survey in November.

A resolution involving careful spending reductions, closing tax loopholes, and tax increases on the wealthiest Americans would avoid the drastic, automatic steps. Any pledge that blocks compromise blocks the democratic process.

If politicians need to validate their worthiness beyond their constitutional vows, they ought put their signature on an oath or pledge based on character, rather than single-minded topics. The Boy Scout Promise calls for young men to abide by 12 points in the Scout Law, by being “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” The Girl Scout Law also would set an interesting standard for Capitol Hill occupants — “I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place …” Of course, the biblical book of Matthew advises man not to swear oaths, but to instead “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’”

In “Following the Equator,” America’s greatest writer, Mark Twain, wrote, “To make a pledge of any kind is to declare war against nature; for a pledge is a chain that is always clanking and reminding the wearer of it that he is not a free man.” Members of Congress should be free to consider all sides of an issue, all the people it affects, and all the remedies available. If we Americans dislike the outcome, we are free to respond by putting our own ink on another document …

A ballot.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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