Rep. Henry Waxman should make a promise to his constituents, but he doesn't want to. So, instead of promising that he'll protect Social Security from President Obama's proposed benefit cut, Waxman told one of his constituents the very idea of asking representatives to make "pledges" is wrong.
This notion that "pledges are bad" a new Washington cliché in this, the age of anti-democratic (with a small "d") and anti-Democratic (with a big "D") budget deals. There's just one little problem: Representatives begin their terms by taking a pledge. It's called the "Oath of Office," and in it each member of Congress promises to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
The Oath of Office pledge is clearly acceptable, which raises the question: Which pledges are not?
A "pledge" is defined as "a solemn binding promise to do, give, or refrain from doing something." That sounds like a good thing, doesn't it? Of course, neither Rep. Waxman nor the president, who shares his aversion for the word, oppose pledges on principle. They've simply imbibed the conventional wisdom that members of Congress should be free to negotiate anything without being bound by commitments made beforehand.
That may even be a reasonable principle... in reasonable times. But where Washington is concerned, these are not reasonable times. Extremist Republicans are hell-bent on dismantling government and tearing up the social contract that has kept us prosperous for generations. Their counterparts in the Democratic Party are frequently too conflict-averse, too sympathetic to this corporatist agenda -- or both -- to fight.
Rather than make a clear and inarguable statement of principle, these Democrats have "pledged not to pledge." This has already led to several very bad outcomes:First, the president and many other leading Democrats have adopted the rhetoric of discredited austerity economics, which usually masquerades under the catch-all phrase "Simpson Bowles," leaving the public's wishes and interests unarticulated in our national debate. At best, they've muddied the differences between themselves and their opponents.
Secondly, the president and his fellow Democrats have agreed to a series of reckless budget-cutting measures instead of fighting for jobs and protecting the social contract. This has deepened and lengthened the lingering recession (or "Long Depression") which continues to devastate millions of American households.
And third, Democrats have set themselves up for repeated political losses by diluting their traditional pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-Social Security and pro-Medicare agenda with mixed messages and disastrous deals. The president's waffling over Social Security and Medicare, for example, led directly to the GOP's "Seniors Bill of Rights" campaign in 2010 -- which helped Republicans retake the House and inflict a disastrous loss on Democrats that year.Democrats clearly haven't learned their lesson. When pressed by constituent Kim Kaufman to sign the "Grayson-Takano" letter pledging to reject Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts, Waxmansaid: "I can see possibilities that some things that we don't like may be in a final budget and that will get us a lot of things we do want."
The biggest "thing we don't like" on the table right now is Obama's Social Security cut, which is also a middle-class tax hike. The chained-CPI will permanently punish the country's already under-protected elderly and disabled citizens. The "things we want" are likely to be slightly less draconian cuts to other social service programs, or some "genteel" tax hikes which target everybody but the wealthy - perhaps the loss of health, child care, or mortgage interest deductions.
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