Opinion: Pledge fuels cynicism about Congress

December 9, 2012


A few words to ponder as we sail toward the fiscal cliff. Those words would be: “That was then, this is now.”

Strip away the false piety and legalistic hair splitting offered by Republican lawmakers rationalizing their decision to abandon a pledge that they will never ever, ever, ever vote to raise taxes, and that’s pretty much what the explanation boils down to.

Rep. Peter King says he understood the pledge, propounded by the almighty Grover Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform, to obligate him for only one term. Apparently, he thought it had to be renewed, like a driver’s license.

Sen. Lindsey Graham says that if Democrats agree to entitlement reform, “I will violate the pledge for the good of the country” — a stirring statement of patriotism and sacrifice that warms your heart like a midnight snack of jalapeno chili fries.

In other words: bull Twinkies. If you want the truth of why a trickle of GOP lawmakers is suddenly willing to blaspheme the holy scripture of their faith, it’s simple. The pledge used to be politically expedient. Now it is not.

This is not, by the way, a column in defense of the Norquist pledge. The only thing dumber than his offering such a pledge was scores of politicians signing it, an opinion that has nothing to do with the wisdom or lack thereof of raising taxes and everything to do with the fact that one ought not, as a matter of simple common sense, make hard, inflexible promises on changeable matters of national import. It is all well and good to stand on whatever one’s principles are, but as a politician — a job that, by definition, requires the ability to compromise — you don’t needlessly box yourself in. Never say never.

Much less, never ever, ever, ever.

So this revolution against “he who must be obeyed,” however modest, is nonetheless welcome. It suggests reason seeping like sunlight into places too long cloistered in the damp and dark of ideological rigidity.

But it leaves an observer in the oddly weightless position of applauding a thing and being, simultaneously, disgusted by it. Has politics ever seemed more ignoble than in these clumsy, self-serving attempts to justify a deviation from orthodoxy? They have to do this, of course, because the truth — “I signed the pledge because I knew it would help me get elected, but with economic ruin looming and Obama re-elected on a promise to raise taxes on the rich and most voters supporting him on that, it’s not doing me as much good as it once did” — is unpretty and unflattering.

In this awkward about-face, these lawmakers leave us wondering once again whether the vast majority of them — right and left, red and blue, Republican and Democrat — really believe in anything, beyond being re-elected.

There is a reason Congress’ approval ratings flirted with single digits this year. There is a reason a new Gallup Poll finds only 10 percent of Americans ranking Congress “high or very high” in honesty and ethics.

Lawyers rank higher. Advertisers rank higher. Even journalists rank higher.

This is the sad pass to which years of congressional grandstanding, fact spinning, cookie jar pilfering and assorted harrumphing and pontificating have brought us. And while a certain cynicism toward its leaders functions as a healthy antigen in the body politic, it cannot be good for either the nation or its leaders that so many of them are held in plain contempt.

The moral malleability exemplified by the likes of King and Graham will not help. Perhaps we should ask them to sign a new pledge: “I will always tell you what I think and what I plan to do in plain English, regardless of whether you like it or it benefits me politically.”

But no lawmaker would make that pledge. And who would believe them if they did?

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on


Cait McKnelly 1 year, 4 months ago

Methinks the zombies are back. How long before one of them goes too far and gets canned again?


donttreadonme 1 year, 4 months ago

"fancy8023 hours, 10 minutes ago

Don't "fix" my posts Cait. I don't need or want your help."

I think you do need help because you can't post without calling people names. Your FoxNews induced bitterness from the election is showing.


Carol Bowen 1 year, 4 months ago

+To hear members of congress speculate on the next election, how to gain power in the senate or house, and discuss what platform would increase voter support is truly insulting. We are treated like widgets, game pieces on their board.

+Funding political campaigns has become a national rather than local effort. If this continues, we will not be represented at all. The game is in Washington. We are the spectators. It doesn't matter which representative you write to, the response is 'Thank you for your input' and 'Here's my position'.


Abdu Omar 1 year, 4 months ago

In my opinion, McConnell is the biggest obstructionist in the Senate.


Centerville 1 year, 4 months ago

Well, Harry Reid won't allow a vote on Obama's plan. So that fixes that.


Gandalf 1 year, 4 months ago

Sorry TG, raising taxes on everybody would guarantee a second recession. The teapubs do need to practice some advice from their self-proclaimed playbook. “Don’t bind the mouth of the kine that treads the grain”. Since corporations are “people too” we should start charging them with treason. US products can be sold at a competitive price. The only problem is that it would not be AS profitable, perhaps companies should start buying back stock to reduce the number of investors. That would increase the rate of return.


tomatogrower 1 year, 4 months ago

I say let all tax cuts since Clinton's term expire. Everyone would end up paying more in taxes, but if the Republicans really think that our bad economy is caused by our deficit spending, and we all bite the bullet and sacrifice to pay off our debts, at least to foreign countries, then the economy should approve, right? Of course, then the light would shine on those people who are really responsible for our poor economy - investment bankers, ceo's, companies like Wal Mart, CEO's who give into companies like WalMart and move jobs out of the country, etc.


Mike Ford 1 year, 4 months ago

grover nordquist was with jack abramov and backed a book on the mississippi choctaw tribe as an example of self sufficiency which I own. at the same time all of these gop crooks were ripping off six or seven tribes with fake lobbying and consulting fees a decade ago. slimeballs who want to wreck the us government because of civil rights acts and employer law and insurance laws that were passed. go back to the 1950's with billy clubs, firehoses, dogs, separate facilities, chauvinism excedera......I don't think so.....


tange 1 year, 4 months ago

Ya know, if yer gonna pledge allegiance, it should be to the flag at the top o' the pole rather than the turd at its base.


FalseFlag 1 year, 4 months ago

Maybe I just don’t understand new math. But I can’t figure out why it is that $250,000 is the political equivalent of $1 million. Obama and his lapdogs – Pelosi, Reid and even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – are all running around insisting that America’s wealthy must pay the price for all the giveaways that government has dished up during the last few decades of thoughtless spending. The lapdogs are yapping about raising taxes on American families earning more than $250,000 a year ... and yet it was Obama, during the campaign, who kept insisting, over and over again, that “the millionaires and billionaires” must do more to bail out politicians and their profligacy. See – the numbers just don’t jibe. If the president wants to suck the teats of those with incomes of seven digits or more, why are Democrats so wedded to the seemingly arbitrary $250,000? Blame their spiritual advisor, Bill Clinton, who in 1993 created a new 39.6% tax bracket at $250,000, then the highest bracket in the tax code. That was a moment in our financial history when less than 1% of American households earned that level of income. Two decades later, our world is much different…

Today, about 3% of American households earn at least $250,000 and the great preponderance of them congregate on the east and west coasts, where the cost of living identical lives to those in the middle of the country is sharply higher. Consider: a $250,000 lifestyle in Washington, D.C. costs just $159,000 in Des Moines, Iowa – $157,000 in Houston, Texas – $183,000 in Denver, Colorado – or $163,000 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I live. Middle-class families struggling in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York and northern Virginia, with the exact same financial issues you and I have, will be unfairly subsidizing the rest of the country. This is all because Democrats, in their rush to demonize wealth and to resurrect the ghosts of Clinton-era prosperity, screwed up the math, as usual.

Let’s give the Democrats their $250,000 – but, to be fair to the ghost of Clintonomics, let’s apply a little inflation adjusting. After all, 20 years is a long time for the dollar to devalue. To capture the same spirit as Clinton, the Dems should start their “wealth” discussion at an inflation-adjusted $383,000 – which I’ll round down to $375,000 for the sake of argument (since the Dems want to capture as many people as possible to pay the costs of the government’s unfettered spending). At that level, a $375,000 income in D.C. is in the range of $250,000 in Baton Rouge, Houston, Des Moines, Dallas, Tampa, Kansas City, Denver, Knoxville, etc. In short, you begin to capture a $250,000-lifestyle that is equivalent all over the country. To be clear, I remain perturbed that lawmakers think it’s the duty of the supposedly wealthy to pay for the never-ending financial gluttony of Congress. But that’s a different fight for a different day.

Erika Nolan


fancy80 1 year, 4 months ago

I am appalled by a President that doesn't even give the appearance of wanting to negotiate or compromise. I am appalled by a President that appears to want the entire country to suffer so he can "stick it" to the republicans.

The numbers in increased revenue and spending cuts that he campaigned for, are not the same numbers he is talking about now. And seriously, another stimulus? Come on, does he think we are stupid?

sadly, yes he does.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 4 months ago

Going to get interesting in a few weeks.


Abdu Omar 1 year, 4 months ago

I am appalled by the actions of this congress. We Americans are completely untrusting of any politician who thinks of his party, his pocketbook, his own self before considering what a tax increase on the common man would do to this economy. Those who signed this Norquist pledge were totally foolish as if to say "I will not represent my constituents, I will only represent what will benefit me and my party."

Come on Congress, do your jobs. I don't see why this is so difficult. And, YES, those of us who paid into Soc Sec and Medicare are owed the coveraged that it should have bought. Don't play around with those of us who are retired, disabled and cannot work any longer. Let us have what we paid for. I know the younger ones pay into it for our benefits but we paid for others too. Leave us alone.


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