Rep. Henry Waxman should make a promise to his constituents, but he doesn't want to. So, instead of promising that he'll protect Social Security from President Obama's proposed benefit cut, Waxman told one of his constituents the very idea of asking representatives to make "pledges" is wrong.
This notion that "pledges are bad" a new Washington cliché in this, the age of anti-democratic (with a small "d") and anti-Democratic (with a big "D") budget deals. There's just one little problem: Representatives begin their terms by taking a pledge. It's called the "Oath of Office," and in it each member of Congress promises to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
The Oath of Office pledge is clearly acceptable, which raises the question: Which pledges are not?
A "pledge" is defined as "a solemn binding promise to do, give, or refrain from doing something." That sounds like a good thing, doesn't it? Of course, neither Rep. Waxman nor the president, who shares his aversion for the word, oppose pledges on principle. They've simply imbibed the conventional wisdom that members of Congress should be free to negotiate anything without being bound by commitments made beforehand.
That may even be a reasonable principle... in reasonable times. But where Washington is concerned, these are not reasonable times. Extremist Republicans are hell-bent on dismantling government and tearing up the social contract that has kept us prosperous for generations. Their counterparts in the Democratic Party are frequently too conflict-averse, too sympathetic to this corporatist agenda -- or both -- to fight.
Rather than make a clear and inarguable statement of principle, these Democrats have "pledged not to pledge." This has already led to several very bad outcomes:
First, the president and many other leading Democrats have adopted the rhetoric of discredited austerity economics, which usually masquerades under the catch-all phrase "Simpson Bowles," leaving the public's wishes and interests unarticulated in our national debate. At best, they've muddied the differences between themselves and their opponents.
Secondly, the president and his fellow Democrats have agreed to a series of reckless budget-cutting measures instead of fighting for jobs and protecting the social contract. This has deepened and lengthened the lingering recession (or "Long Depression") which continues to devastate millions of American households.
And third, Democrats have set themselves up for repeated political losses by diluting their traditional pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-Social Security and pro-Medicare agenda with mixed messages and disastrous deals. The president's waffling over Social Security and Medicare, for example, led directly to the GOP's "Seniors Bill of Rights" campaign in 2010 -- which helped Republicans retake the House and inflict a disastrous loss on Democrats that year.
Democrats clearly haven't learned their lesson. When pressed by constituent Kim Kaufman to sign the "Grayson-Takano" letter pledging to reject Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts, Waxman said: "I can see possibilities that some things that we don't like may be in a final budget and that will get us a lot of things we do want."
The biggest "thing we don't like" on the table right now is Obama's Social Security cut, which is also a middle-class tax hike. The chained-CPI will permanently punish the country's already under-protected elderly and disabled citizens. The "things we want" are likely to be slightly less draconian cuts to other social service programs, or some "genteel" tax hikes which target everybody but the wealthy - perhaps the loss of health, child care, or mortgage interest deductions.
Whatever the deal looks like, the "pluses" won't be very big -- and aren't likely to last very long. But the chained CPI and other benefit cuts will last forever.
Rep. Waxman and his peers should sign that letter, if only in their own enlightened self-interest. The chances of Democratic gains will be nil if President Obama immortalizes Democrats as the party which cut Social Security in 2013.
Some will ask: Would you rather prevent representatives from voting for a budget bill because they signed some "pledge," even if it triggers a budget crisis? The answer is: Yes. Budget crises are temporary, but these benefit cuts are permanent.
Washington's "anti-pledge" is really an "anti-democracy" movement. People elect their leaders based on the things those leaders promise to do. Would Waxman and like-minded Democrats like to memorialize the principle that politicians should never be forced to keep their promises? How would voters ever know what they're getting?
That's arguably the problem with today's broken democratic process: They don't. If President Obama had been honest about his intentions when running for president, for example, he might not be in the office today. Americans -- and the Democratic Party -- would be much better off if he'd been forced to sign a letter pledging to keep his promises.
"Anti-pledge" Democrats, including Waxman, like to cite Grover Norquist's "no new taxes" pledge as a reason to oppose them on principle. But that pledge was anti-democratic in its origin, written and promoted by corporate- and billionaire-funded organizations. Just because one pledge is bad doesn't mean they all are.
For that matter, I'm not sure I dislike the Norquist pledge either. I think it helps the democratic process to know which politicians are committed to protecting the privileges of the wealthy and corporations at all costs. (Of a.course, it's more helpful when their opponents take a firm stand against these unpopular positions, which not enough Democrats do.)
Imagine an election in which the candidates of one party have pledged never to raise taxes on corporations and billionaires, regardless of the fiscal consequences, and those of the other have pledged never to cut Social Security or Medicare benefits. The polls are clear: The party that opposes benefit cuts would win overwhelmingly.
That would be a win for democracy, too. So would a vote for the Harkin bill, which expands and strengthens Social Security. A majority of voters polled in both parties (including 62 percent of Republicans) prefer to contemplate paying higher taxes in return for better Social Security benefits (although most people would not pay more under the Harkin plan).
Politics is the art of compromise, and this aversion to "pledges" is presumably based on some Democrats' desire to compromise with their Republican counterparts. But we assume some principles aren't open for negotiation, even among today's Democrats. Presumably they'd be willing to sign a pledge promising not to "compromise" on indentured servitude (although many of them, including Joe Biden, voted for a usurious bankruptcy bill).
If fact, there are many fundamental issues which most Americans in both parties would proudly "pledge" to defend: women's suffrage, for example, or the rights of free speech and assembly. What Henry Waxman is really saying is that he doesn't consider Social Security benefits to be that kind of fundamental issue. He's entitled to his opinion. And I'm entitled to my opinion -- about that.
Like Kim Kaufman, I'm a constituent of Rep. Waxman's. I make the following statement purely as an individual, and as a voter in Rep. Waxman's district. If he won't make a "solemn, binding promise" this week, I will: I pledge to support a primary challenge against Henry Waxman if he votes for the chained CPI. I suspect that Kim Kaufman and a lot of other voters in this district will support that idea too.
In the meantime, you can go here to see Kim's video and ask Rep. Waxman to sign the Grayson-Takano letter.