The Agenda

Taking the Pledge Seriously

Should we take the Pledge seriously? Erick Erickson thinks we shouldn’t:

 

These 21 pages tell you lots of things, some contradictory things, but mostly this: it is a serious of compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because the House GOP does not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama.

I have one message for John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the House GOP Leadership: If they do not want to use the GOP to lead, I would like to borrow it for a time.

Yes, yes, it is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity. But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high.

It is dreck — dreck with some stuff I like, but like Brussels sprouts in butter. I like the butter, not the Brussels sprouts. Overall, this grand illusion of an agenda that will never happen is best spoken of today and then never again as if it did not happen. It is best forgotten.

Yet what might Erickson embrace as a more tough-minded approach?

There is no call for a Spending Limitation Amendment or a Balanced Budget Amendment. It is just meaningless stuff the Democrats can easily undo and that ultimately the Senate GOP will even turn its nose up at.

Bluntly, both ideas are profoundly unserious. A constitutional approach to restraining the federal government would empower the federal courts to seize control of fiscal policy, or they would include enough workarounds to delay and not defeat efforts to sharply increase spending levels. Note that all of the Balanced Budget Amendment proposals include provisos for wartime spending and even recessions. Who decides when a recession begins and ends? And are we currently in a state of war, and will that state of war ever end? What constitutes an increase in tax or spending? 

As much as I loathe federal lawmakers, I’d rather have elected officials decide on the Social Security retirement age than Sonia Sotomayor or Samuel Alito, their many virtues notwithstanding. 

Not surprisingly, I think National Review has struck the right note on the Pledge: 

 

All year long, conservatives have been pressuring Republicans to release a Contract with America for 2010 — an updated version of the campaign platform that the party unveiled before its 1994 sweep of Congress. Thursday morning, Republican congressmen are responding to that pressure by making a “Pledge to America.” The inevitable question will be: Is the pledge as bold as the Contract?

The answer is: The pledge is bolder. The Contract with America merely promised to hold votes on popular bills that had been bottled up during decades of Democratic control of the House. The pledge commits Republicans to working toward a broad conservative agenda that, if implemented, would make the federal government significantly smaller, Congress more accountable, and America more prosperous.

The unanswered question, of course, is whether congressional Republicans intend to take their rhetoric seriously. The cynic in me tells me that the answer is no. But despite what you may have heard from countless commentators, the Pledge does not set forth an impossible task. There is enough low-hanging fruit in the federal budget, in my view, to bring spending in line with long-term tax revenues. I hinted at some of the choices we might make in a comment for FT.com earlier today:

 

We can hardly expect a pre-election manifesto to offer a specific guide to spending reductions. And so it is worth taking the House Republicans at their word, if only as a thought experiment. Though one might prefer a more innovative take on health reform and taxes – why not promise a new, more growth-friendly tax code or a new health plan that aims to empower state governments? – the Republicans have in this document committed themselves to a programme of reform and decentralisation. To that end, they will, if they win in November, have more options than our present political conversation allows.

What might they do? The left-of-centre Centre for American Progress recently published a guide to [closing the primary federal deficit]. As a provocation, they offer one plan for reducing it by $255bn through spending cuts, including the elimination of many cherished federal programmes. Although not in the pledge, it would make an excellent start.

They could then take a page from the right-of-centre American Enterprise Institute, and implement a competitive pricing system that applies equally to Medicare FFS and Medicare Advantage, a reform that would yield an additional $50bn in annual savings. Paring back the $300bn tax break for employer-provided health insurance would also make a big dent in the deficit. And that is just a start.

None of this will be easy. But if the House Republicans take their pledge seriously, they have the potential to succeed where previous waves of conservative reformers have failed. And in doing so, they will set the stage for a leaner, more effective American state that serves as a driver rather than as an impediment to long-run growth. Let’s hope they mean it.

I can’t recommend the CAP report enough, and I intend to write more about it.

Let’s be serious. The high-income rate reductions are expected to cost $700 billion over ten years. The mortgage interest deduction is expected to cost $637 billion over five years. Yes, it is politically unrealistic to eliminate it in one fell swoop. But how did we suddenly decide that it’s impossible to close the budget gap? It’s not. It’s just really, really hard, like anything worth doing.    

Most Popular

History

Thanksgiving Is Not a Lie

We live in a time of heedless iconoclasm, and so one of the country’s oldest traditions is under assault. Thanksgiving is increasingly portrayed as, at best, based on falsehoods and, at worst, a whitewash of genocide against Native Americans. The New York Times ran a piece the other day titled, “The ... Read More
History

Thanksgiving Is Not a Lie

We live in a time of heedless iconoclasm, and so one of the country’s oldest traditions is under assault. Thanksgiving is increasingly portrayed as, at best, based on falsehoods and, at worst, a whitewash of genocide against Native Americans. The New York Times ran a piece the other day titled, “The ... Read More
Culture

On Being Grateful

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range ... Read More
Culture

On Being Grateful

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range ... Read More
U.S.

Gratitude: What We Owe to Our Country

Editor’s Note: The following essay by National Review founder William F. Buckley comes from the first chapter of his 1990 book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. I have always thought Anatole France’s story of the juggler to be one of enduring moral resonance. This is the arresting and ... Read More
U.S.

Gratitude: What We Owe to Our Country

Editor’s Note: The following essay by National Review founder William F. Buckley comes from the first chapter of his 1990 book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. I have always thought Anatole France’s story of the juggler to be one of enduring moral resonance. This is the arresting and ... Read More