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.