WASHINGTON — In their attempts to bend public officials to their will, advocacy groups have turned increasingly to a specific tool: the pledge.
The most widely known pledge is probably the one that commits those signing to oppose any new tax increases. That pledge, organized by conservative activist Grover Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, has been signed by every U.S. senator and House member now representing Nebraska, along with Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham, both R-Iowa.
"In the last 10 years, there's really been a proliferation of that kind of thing," John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said of pledges.
He said they have been particularly noticeable on the conservative side of the spectrum.
The pledges are more relevant than ever, with a special committee meeting this fall to consider ways to reduce the massive federal deficit. Created as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, Congress will vote on the committee's recommendations.
But if many of the lawmakers have signed pledges not to raise taxes or not to touch entitlement programs — or both — then how is a deal possible?
"If you sign the pledge and stick to it, then there's no reason to have a debate," Hibbing said.
At least one Nebraska public official has found himself chafing under Norquist's pledge.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry signed it in 2004, during his successful run to represent Nebraska's 1st Congressional District.
But when the Lincoln Republican was asked about the pledge recently at a gathering of constituents, he said he no longer considered it binding.
"A while back, I had notified the organization that I had taken that pledge when I ran for office and upheld that my first term in office but realized that this type of pledge can constrain creative policy thinking, so I asked not to be associated with it any longer," Fortenberry told The World-Herald.
Fortenberry said it's not that he's itching to raise taxes, but he says that the nation's current budget crisis calls for creative solutions and that the pledge is too restrictive.
For example, he said, the tax code needs a revamping that could involve eliminating certain loopholes and deductions that allow many to avoid paying taxes. He said such an overhaul of the system would allow for actual tax rates to fall for everyone.
Fortenberry identified ethanol tax subsidies as deserving of elimination but said that under the Norquist pledge, ending ethanol subsidies would be seen as raising taxes and thus be forbidden.
"I can't be constrained by a particular interest group pledge when it bumps up against the need for creative public policy in complex situations." he said.
Despite Fortenberry's disavowal of the pledge, his name continues to be included on Norquist's list of signers.
John Kartch, a spokesman for the group, said that the list is a historical document and that the organization considers the pledge binding for as long as an elected official is in office.
"One does not promise to be pro-life for two years, or pro-Second Amendment for one year," Kartch said. "One is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment or pro-taxpayer as long as one is in office. Or not."
Fortenberry says it's up to voters to judge whether they trust him to make the right decisions and says he's through signing pledges.
One signature missing from Norquist's list is that of Sen. Chuck Grassley, even though the Iowa Republican has been a supporter of keeping taxes down. A Grassley spokeswoman said the senator generally doesn't "sign pledges separate from the Senate oath of office to support and defend the Constitution."
Hibbing suggested that lawmakers should resist the pressure to sign pledges when running for office but said it's clear why advocacy groups will continue pushing them: It gives them more power.
"That's what's made Grover Norquist a household word — if you don't sign his pledge, he's going to go around telling the tea party that 'You're not really with us on the issue of taxes,'" Hibbing said.
Rep. Lee Terry has had his own experiences with pledges.
Of course, there was his pledge to serve only three terms in office, which he renounced after entering Congress, saying he had realized the importance of seniority.
But the 2nd District Republican also knows the pressure special interest groups bring to bear in the form of pledges.
"When you're running for office, there's a pledge a day," Terry said.
He generally refuses to sign any pledges now. But one from last year's campaign came back to haunt him.
Terry had backed President George W. Bush's unsuccessful stab at Social Security privatization. But in the run-up to his last election, Terry did an about-face on the issue, saying he was responding to constituent opposition to privatization.
He signed a pledge to oppose privatization attempts at an event that included the AARP.
But earlier this summer, Terry became a co-sponsor of legislation viewed by some as creating privatization. Once that was pointed out by a World-Herald reporter, Terry removed his name from the legislation. He continued, however, to laud the bill sponsors' attempt to address problems with the Social Security system's balance sheet.
"When these pledges are drafted in such absolutes — 'Even if the world is crumbling' type of stuff — that does hamper (the search for solutions)," Terry said.
He said the pledge signing often ends in disputes over interpretation of exactly what the pledge means.
"And then you have groups like AARP . and Grover Norquist and others that do have the means behind them to just beat the snot out of you, even if you don't think that you're violating any pledge," he said.
Terry said pledges can serve a purpose when someone is first running for office, as voters look for insight into the candidate's ideology. But after 12 years in Congress, he said, his consistent opposition to tax increases should guide constituents.
"Instead of looking at a document I signed in 1997 or 1998, look at my voting record," Terry said.
He also said that while he considers raising taxes an absolute last resort, if a piece of legislation came forward that was necessary to save the Republic and it included tax increases, he would not feel bound by Norquist's pledge to oppose it.
"At some point in time, you do what's right," Terry said. "The people will accept that."
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