Governing is not for the faint of heart

The New York Times has a good editorial today on the proliferation of “pledges” Republican candidates, especially at the presidential level, are expected to sign and follow. It’s a good piece, but I’d take the argument just a little further.

As the NYT editorial board explained, these GOP candidates are effectively “signing away the right to govern” and in the process, undermining “the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.”

The oldest and most pernicious of these modern oaths was dreamed up by Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, who has managed to get 95 percent of all Republicans in Congress to pledge never to raise taxes for any reason. If they end tax deductions, Mr. Norquist’s pledge-takers say they will match the increase in revenue with further tax cuts.

That pledge is the single biggest reason the federal government is now on the edge of default. Its signers will not allow revenues in a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

Its success has now spawned dangerous offspring. There is the Susan B. Anthony pledge, in which candidates promise to appoint antiabortion cabinet officers and cut off federal financing to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. It has been signed by Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum. There is the cut, cap and balance pledge to gut the federal government by cutting and capping spending, and enacting a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. It has been signed by all of the above candidates, plus Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.

And there is the particularly bizarre Marriage Vow, in which candidates agree to oppose same-sex marriage, reject Shariah law and pledge personal fidelity to their spouse. Until it was changed after a public outcry, it also contained a line saying that a black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by a two-parent family than a similar child raised in the Obama era. It was signed by Mr. Santorum and Mrs. Bachmann.

I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. The pledges intend to put lawmakers in a governing straightjacket, locking them into positions before even being confronted with questions or circumstances. Our system is premised on the notion that there will be some give and take between institutions and factions; pledges intend to make that process impossible.

But I’d a related point: the principle behind these pledges is manifesting itself in Republican policy proposals.

Take the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” monstrosity that passed the House yesterday, for example. GOP House members don’t want to do the work of making decisions and prioritizing use of public resources; they want arbitrary legal mechanisms that make decisions for them. Republicans could create a plan to balance the budget, or they could create a constitutional gimmick. The latter is easier than working, so it’s the preferred solution.

The same is true with spending caps. Republicans could identify spending they consider unnecessary and write legislation to cut it. Instead, they want to create arbitrary caps without doing the messy work of going through the budget, defending or eliminating potential waste.

It’s pledge politics in legislative form — the pledge is intended to lock candidates into specific conservative ideals, and CC&B is intended to lock officeholders into specific conservative policy goals.

Neither approach is a credible way to govern in American politics.

Update: It looks like Jared Bernstein was thinking along similar lines this morning.