Before they can begin work in Washington, D.C., newly elected members of Congress must swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . . bear true faith and allegiance to the same . . . well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
That and allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the republic for which it stands are the only pledges members of Congress or even the president should ever affirm.
But, unfortunately, since 1986 hundreds of men and women elected to serve in Congress have been persuaded to sign other single-interest pledges that conflict with the faithful discharge of their official duties. Today, for example, more than a majority of the House of Representatives — 238 members —and more than 41 senators have signed a pledge to oppose any increase in taxes.
Sadly, there are other pledges to protect Social Security and Medicare, the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge, the Republican Party’s pledge to America, and many others including pledges involving energy policy based on climate change and abortion.
The so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge of Americans for Tax Reform has become a major obstacle to the development of a balanced plan to reduce federal deficit spending. It’s a primary reason Congress and the Obama administration had to surrender in August and appoint a 12-member Super Committee that in turn failed to agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions.
No wonder, half the members of that committee were pledged not to do anything that would have the impact of raising taxes, thus preventing them from even considering all the options on the revenue-producing along with the cost-cutting side of the ledger.
Helping members and candidates reject the pressure to sign no-tax and other restrictive pledges is one of a dozen steps in a Make Congress Work agenda proposed by the congressional-reform organization No Labels (nolabels.org), to make Congress work. All the proposals to fix a broken Congress could be implemented almost immediately by Congress.
Of course, candidates for public office have the right to make and sign such a pledge before or after taking office. They don’t give up their right to free speech when they become members of Congress.
But they have at least the moral obligation to maintain the intellectual integrity to consider all possibilities to solve the problems they will encounter. They are obligated to discuss their ideas and plans when campaigning for their constituents’ support. But they should be careful to avoid pre-empting tomorrow’s solutions because of today’s circumstances.
Avoiding special-interest pledges could be considered and enforced by Congress as a standard of conduct for its members.
Members must realize they are tying their hands behind their backs, placing promising options out of reach as they struggle to solve one of the most pressing problems of our times — controlling federal budget deficits. They are delegating their decision-making responsibilities to single-issue special interests. They are subjecting themselves and their constituents to the whimsical interpretations and perspectives of anonymously funded special interests with one purpose in mind — their own.
In today’s world, public officials need to have their hands, and minds, free to consider all the evidence, to evaluate all the options, to react swiftly, resourcefully and innovatively to emergencies, complex and unforeseen situations and circumstances. They can’t do that in virtual handcuffs.
Ron Shaich, a No Labels co-founder, is the founder and executive chairman of Panera Bread Company.