Read her lips: No new taxes.
That’s essentially what U.S. Senate candidate Heather Wilson said last year when she signed lobbyist Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge.
It’s not the only position the New Mexico Republican has locked into. Last year, during the bitter debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, she put her signature on what’s known as the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge. Signers promise to oppose any move to raise the federal debt limit unless it’s accompanied by major spending cuts, caps on future spending and a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Although critics of congressional members signing pledges with interest groups say it reduces the chances of effective policymaking in Washington, such pledges are becoming more common in U.S. politics. The Norquist no-tax pledge is especially pervasive in conservative ranks. About 95 percent of Republicans in Congress and hundreds of GOP congressional contenders such as Wilson have signed it.
Democratic Senate candidate Martin Heinrich, who this week attacked Wilson for signing those pledges, has also taken the plunge in the political pledge pool. Heinrich, who represents the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District, is one of 123 Democrats in Congress who has signed the Social Security Protector’s Pledge. Signers promise to vote against any effort to privatize the system, scale back Social Security benefits or raise the retirement age.
Neither of New Mexico’s current senators — Jeff Bingaman, who is retiring, and Tom Udall, both Democrats — signed the Social Security pledge. “Sen. Udall always fights for Social Security but doesn’t do pledges,” a spokeswoman said Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Bingaman had a similar response.
Critics say rigid, single-issue pledges don’t make for good government.
A July 2011 USA Today editorial headlined “Candidates who sign pledges outsource their brains” asserted that, “whether they come from the right or the left, these sorts of pledges are recipes for gridlock.”
The editorial argued that “simple-minded pledges carry weight with many voters who prefer that their politicians never change their minds or cut deals with opponents. … The vows stop politicians from working out compromises with colleagues who disagree with them. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?”
Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and co-founded a moderate political organization called No Labels, declared recently, “The proliferation of pledges has gotten out of control.”
“What that basically means is that Congress has signed away its ability to ever seriously address our country’s fiscal problems,” Walker said in a statement issued by No Labels. “They are elected to solve problems, not to stonewall solutions.”
Both Wilson and Heinrich this week defended the pledges they signed.
“Washington continues to grow government, grow our debt and raise taxes, while at the same time it makes things harder and more expensive for families,” Wilson said through a spokesman. “I’ve signed the tax pledge multiple times because, unlike Martin Heinrich, I don’t think we should raise taxes on working families in New Mexico.”
Signers of the no-tax pledge created in 1987 by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform promise they will “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses … and oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”
Whitney Potter, a spokeswoman for Heinrich’s campaign, said, “Heather Wilson values her pledge to lobbyist Grover Norquist over protecting Medicare and Social Security for our seniors. Congresswoman Wilson’s misplaced priorities that put millionaires and big corporations ahead of the middle class are wrong for New Mexico.”
Of Heinrich’s Social Security pledge, she said, “We can and must reduce our deficit — but Martin Heinrich will never agree to doing so on the backs of New Mexico seniors. Martin will always fight any effort to privatize Social Security or Medicare and will always stand on the side of New Mexico’s seniors when these crucial programs are at risk.”
Both candidates were asked to comment on the argument that pledges basically sandbag any effort to negotiate or compromise. However, neither directly responded to that request.
Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform was founded in 1985. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, the group is not required to disclose the identity its financial supporters.
But Open Secrets, the website for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it was able to determine some of the large donors to the group. Contributions include $4 million from Crossroads GPS, a political action committee associated with former Bush political director Karl Rove; $325,000 from the conservative Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation; $87,500 from Donor’s Trust, a “free market” charity; and $75,000 from the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America.
The Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Change Campaign Committee is behind the Social Security Protector’s Pledge. According to Open Secrets, the largest single contributions to this group were three $5,000 contributions from individuals and a $3,366 contribution from the liberal organization MoveOn.org.