To Pledge Or Not To Pledge

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

A discussion of pledges will be the closest we get to a Flag Day column, just as me taking a long lunch later will be the closest Flag Day gets to being a real holiday.  The pledges up for discussion are not those to the flag, but those candidates are asked to sign during a campaign for office.

Interest groups have long used pledges to get candidates to publicly signal that they are aligned with or against their issues.  If the candidate signs a pledge, they are demonstrating with their word and signature how they will vote on an issue or range of issues. They also can generate a little publicity or at least a press release for doing so.  If they do not, the group will at best consider them suspect.

Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform was one of the earliest to use a pledge.  Many candidates sign a statement pledging that they will not raise taxes under the ATR document.  It seems a simple way for a conservative without a past voting record to signal a definitive “read my lips”.  Reality is that it gets a bit more complicated after that.

Norquist has a fluid definition of what exactly constitutes a tax increase.  An imposition of a new tax or an increase in existing tax rates are not the only items which constitute a violation of his pledge.  His group has maintained a virtual veto power over legislation by majority Republican legislative bodies by holding that any measure that increases revenue constitutes a tax increase. 

Georgia’s 2011 attempt at comprehensive tax reform was deemed a tax increase and subsequently shelved because of Norquist’s objections.  It appears that broadening the tax base to bring more people who currently pay no taxes into the system could rate as a tax increase.  Norquist’s proclamations have extended into the surreal at times, with him recently proclaiming that an attempt to cut subsidies for ethanol production equated to a tax increase.  He lost that battle.

DeKalb County’s Fran Millar has some experience with ATR’s pledge.  He signed it as a candidate for the State House in the late 1990’s.  He later decided he wanted to rescind his pledge during later races.  ATR’s position is that you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave.  Even in his race for State Senate years later, ATR’s supporters claimed he still was beholden to his pledge, despite his public rebuke of it.  Millar remains a member in good standing of the State Senate with no opposition for reelection, despite his lack of good standing with ATR.

The hot new pledge for this year is one being promoted by various TEA Party Groups and Common Cause Georgia in support of $100 gift caps for lobbyists to government officials.  The pledge was unveiled during the final days of the general assembly session this year.  Most legislators ignored it while subsequently burying attempts at ethics reform while quietly trying to slip new ways to water down Georgia’s weak ethics laws in an eleventh hour bill about fishing licenses.

Support for the pledge grew following the Republican Convention in Columbus.  Supporters claim an outpouring of grassroots support demonstrated the public’s desire and awareness of the need for a cap.  Cynics point out that the Speaker’s vocal and vehement opposition has given Senators the ability to sign such a pledge on the expectation that legislation will be killed in the House.

Cynics would further note that one of the new converts is none other than Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour.  The same Don Balfour that killed the proposed legislation with a gift cap in his committee.  The same Don Balfour that gutted a subsequent bill to appoint a study committee which included ethics advocates.  The same Don Balfour that was on the conference committee that tried to quietly weaken ethics laws via the fishing license bill.  The same Don Balfour that the Senate Ethics Committee has found “substantial cause” to have committed ethics violations.  Balfour’s support alone is enough to question if the pledge is a path to passing legislation or yet another cynical campaign gimmick on the way to more of the same.

Others are taking a different approach.  Josh Belinfante, a former Vice-Chairman of the State Ethics Commission, is refusing all pledges by outside groups in his run for State Senate.  Instead, he promises to impose a cap on himself regardless of legislation, leaving himself accountable to voters rather than third party groups.

Pledges serve to quickly communicate to voters where a candidate stands on an issue.  They also have the downside of the candidate, once elected, substituting personal judgment with the wishes of non-elected interest groups. 

Individual voters must decide for themselves if they want a candidate who will sign a pledge or not.  If they choose to align themselves with those bearing pledges, they need to spend as much time understanding who the candidate is making himself beholden to as they otherwise would vetting the candidate in the absence of a pledge.


  1. Mike Dudgeon says:

    Charlie this is a great article. I struggled with this quite a bit my first term in the House. I am very conservative as my overall voting record and positions show, but I am nervous “pledging” my judgement to someone else even on “red meat” conservative issues. Many bills we vote on and discuss are kaleidoscopes of gray areas, not simple black and white. However, pledges are appealing because I want also to be transparent with my constituents and stand behind my principles. So far my policy has been to very selective in signing pledges as to avoid going back on my word.

    • Charlie says:

      Thanks Mike. Welcome to Peach Pundit.

      Feel free to come back when you don’t care much for the article’s contents too. That’s when we can really have some fun. 🙂

  2. CobbGOPer says:

    As someone who worked for ATR and Norquist during the first GWB administration, all I can say is that what Grover is ultimately interested in is holding politicians accountable when they try to backtrack on their promises to voters. In case you’ve never read it, you should review the wording of the pledges ATR offers. You talk about who the legislators are beholden to, like they become ‘beholden’ to Grover and ATR when they sign the pledge. This is not the case.

    Below is the wording of the state legislator version of the ATR pledge:

    “I, ____________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _______ District of the state of ____________________ and all the people of this state that I will oppose and vote against
    any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

    That’s a pledge to TAXPAYERS. Not a pledge to “His Almighty Grover the First.” So when these legislators break the pledge, they are breaking a pledge they made to their constituents. Just sayin.

    • Charlie says:

      Except when Grover decides to tell those taxpayers that said elected official has broken this solemn pledge to taxpayers because they have decided to vote to end payments to farmers for ethanol production.

      It’s at that point that its no longer between the elected official and the taxpayers. It’s Grover trying to play power broker as an unelected official and threatening those of whom he holds their pledge with retribution if they don’t go along.

      Grover may have started out well, but he’s now much more interested in having legislators kiss his ring than he is for ensuring that the letter and spirit of that pledge – ONLY the letter and spirit of that pledge – are upheld.

      You’re a big proponent of term limits. When are Grover’s term limits at ATR?

      • CobbGOPer says:

        Can you name the last politician that was booted from office because Grover Norquist said they violated the taxpayer pledge?

        Yeah, I couldn’t name one either…

        • Blake says:

          Whatever. Grover has been powerful enough that that hypothetical has never even arisen. It’s only recently that any elected GOPer has dared to blow him off. It remains to be seen whether the ones who have pay any penalty.

      • John Konop says:

        Charlie did you see this? I agree with you.

        Jeb vs. Grover: Battle for GOP’s soul

        ….The former Florida governor has been speaking with the freedom of someone not running for office, saying that both his father and Ronald Reagan would have had a hard time in today’s hard-right GOP and questioning the wisdom of Grover Norquist’s absolutist anti-tax pledge.

        That set off a fascinating public fight between Bush and Norquist, two faces of competing factions within Republican Party. It is the latest evidence of a growing GOP backlash against the ideological straitjacket Norquist has attempted to impose on governing in the United States…..

        ….Escalation occurred this week when Bush said, “Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground.” He added, “Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” saying that Reagan “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”…..

        ….Of course, Reagan championed lower tax rates, but he also signed off on a number of smaller tax hikes to help address revenue shortfalls and most importantly backed a bipartisan 1986 bill that closed loopholes as part of a simplification plan that raised revenues to help deal with the deficit…..

  3. Three Jack says:

    Every candidate ‘pledges’ on their respective pushcards and other campaign materials. They pledge to reduce government, cut taxes, improve education, decrease traffic, yada, yada, no Grover yada.

    Stop signing special interest pledges and just try to accomplish the pushcard promises made during a campaign. That alone would be a huge improvement over current practices.

  4. ryanhawk says:

    My experience has been that candidates sign pledges and then break them with impunity. This is becoming somewhat more awkward in an age where images of signed pledges and votes cast are readily available and easily published, but I don’t see any consequences for the folks representing me.

  5. saltycracker says:

    We should look for consistency while shunning absolutes & special interests.
    Fundamentalists have lots of absolutes where non-compliance puts you into hell.

    • CobbGOPer says:

      Sounds good. The GAGOP can deal with their own unreasonable pledges before they complain about unreasonable pledges from ATR.

      “I do hereby swear or affirm my allegiance to the Republican Party.” Well, that also sounds like the legislator is expected to vote with the party over constituent interests (if necessary). Pot, meet kettle?

  6. Jackster says:

    I think Grover does some good, but in the end, I need my legislators to be able to go negotiate on my behalf.

    Pledges like this removes my elected officials’ ability to explain to me (their constituents) why a deal was struck, and why they negotiated.

    Unfortunately, if my legislators feel they have to sign a pledge as a PR stunt (nod to Lawton’s last comment), then I don’t think they’re going to do much thinking for themselves, and will be weak as my represntative.

  7. Harry says:

    A pledge can provide a check on special-interest-driven legislative leadership that would seek to circumvent the will of the people.

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