Let’s start by saying that members of Congress shouldn’t be signing pledges. They take an Oath of Office to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office,” and that should be enough.
That said, if they’re going to sign a pledge not to raise taxes, they ought to sign another one promising to hold down spending. And if they’re going to abide by the first, they should abide by the second.
Forty-six senators and 208 House members have signed Americans for Tax Reform’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” promising not to raise taxes. According to the organization’s website, all six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation have signed it. It’s been a powerful force in American politics. Signers have been reluctant to do anything that might be perceived as violating it, such as letting fuel taxes rise with inflation to pay for highways. In the meantime, Congress enthusiastically has cut taxes, as all six members of Arkansas’ delegation voted to do in December.
Unfortunately, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge doesn’t say anything about cutting spending. Congress can spend all it wants, and, boy, has it been. The national debt has swelled from $5.7 trillion in 2000 to $21 trillion today, mostly because of spending increases but also because tax cuts reduced the amount of revenues that would have been collected. This year, all members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation except for Rep. Bruce Westerman voted for the budgetary authority to increase spending over the next 10 years, and then all but Westerman and Sen. Tom Cotton voted for an actual spending increase.
There’s no free lunch. Eventually, bills come due. By cutting taxes, increasing spending, and adding debt, Congress is raising the taxes future Americans will pay. Technically, I guess that’s not a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. But more important, it’s also not well and faithfully discharging the duties of their offices.
Anyway, there’s another pledge.
The Coalition to Reduce Spending has a “Reject the Debt Pledge” where members of Congress and congressional candidates promise to vote only for budgets that present a path to balance. They also pledge to vote against appropriations bills that increase spending, and to vote against funding new programs without cutting others.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a lot less popular. Only 14 members of Congress have signed it, and none from Arkansas. A survey of the state’s congressional delegation offered varying reasons why. The offices of Sen. John Boozman and Rep. French Hill said they weren’t familiar with it, and both along with Sen. Cotton’s said their bosses don’t typically sign pledges. Rep. Steve Womack’s office said he does not sign them at all. Boozman’s office said he “supports the intent behind the pledge.” Westerman said he only votes for budgets that balance.
The Coalition’s president, Jonathan Bydlak, told me that, unlike most states, Congress isn’t constrained by legal mechanisms that require it to make tradeoffs, as households do. If you and I spend more money here, then we must spend less money over there. Not so with Congress, which can spend more for everything and just pass the bill to future generations.
“What we have now is sort of this … Santa Claus phenomenon, whereby everyone promises something to everyone, and we sort of have these agreements where one legislator votes for someone else’s spending in return for them voting for their spending,” he said.
A companion organization, the Institute for Spending Reform, details how much money individual members of Congress vote to spend at spendingtracker.org. It’s a valuable tool, though imperfect, of course. Members of Congress vote for things they know won’t pass. Two-thirds of the federal government’s spending is considered “mandatory” – Social Security, Medicare, and other programs – and therefore Congress doesn’t vote on it annually. But it’s still worth a look if you have a few minutes.
Whether or not you agree with congressional pledges and spending cuts, Bydlak’s organizations are trying to create badly needed accountability in Congress.
There’s one other group that needs more accountability: voters. The main reason Congress doesn’t reject the debt is because we don’t.
But we can. The website also includes a pledge for voters to “neither support nor vote for any candidate who refuses to work seriously toward eliminating our national debt.”
It doesn’t carry the weight of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, of course, just as voters like me don’t carry the same weight as a member of Congress.
But for whatever it’s worth, it’s now got another signer.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.