*This is one in a series of "Hackathon" projects that Student Strategy Team members put together throughout the course of the 2016-2017 school year.
Date: April 21, 2017
Our Inspiration: The Taxpayer Protection Pledge
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge has been remarkably effective in holding elected officials accountable and helping voters to select candidates that will best represent their interests in office. Several crucial factors lend the Taxpayer Protection Pledge its potency, among which are its concise and clear language, the rigorous enforcement of the commitment it entails, and the national exposure and recognition that it enjoys. We have sought to recreate these key components of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in our own Voter Protection Pledge, drawing on one of the most successful solutions in American politics to help solve a problem whose roots are as old as politics itself.
The Problem: Lack of Accountability
George H. W. Bush’s infamous “read my lips” moment - and subsequent tax hike - may be the most iconic instance in recent history of barefaced backtracking on campaign promises, but it is far from a unique event. President Obama made numerous promises on the campaign trail on which he never followed through, including closing tax loopholes for the fossil fuel industry, shutting down Guantanamo Bay within a year, and allowing importation of prescription drugs, to name a few. President Trump has already reneged on many notable campaign promises, including getting Mexico to pay for a border wall and officially declaring China a “currency manipulator.” For many in politics, breaking promises is just part of the game, without which elected officials would lack the flexibility necessary to make well-informed policy decisions. Voters, however, face a serious dilemma as a result: how can they know for whom they should vote? Voters need to be able to know what a candidate will actually do once elected, or at least to place their trust in candidates’ word when they make a concrete commitment.
The Solution: The Pledge
When President Bush signed legislation into law that increased federal taxes in 1990, thereby going back on his promise to the American people, he unwittingly helped to further the cause of increased accountability to voters. By far the most prominent signatory of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge at the time, he provided a powerful example of the Pledge at work. His loss to Clinton in 1992 was attributed in no small part to his going back on the Pledge, which showed politicians that there would be serious consequences for failing to fulfill their commitments to voters. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and Americans for Tax Reform, have flourished since, and the signing of the Pledge has a substantive and substantial effect on tax policy nationwide.
We have sought to recreate the magic of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in our own Pledge, ensuring that we maintain the aspects that allow it to exert such a profound influence on politics. To do this, we have proposed the drafting of an itemized list of commitments which candidates would sign, line by line, according to those promises they are willing to make to their constituents. First, we will poll voters from each of the two major parties on which issues they consider most important in deciding their vote. Once we have determined the most important vote-moving issues on either side, we will consult with experts in those fields to draft clear, unambiguous language expressing a commitment to follow a certain policy direction for each of those issues. There are a few essential criteria that we believe, if followed, will allow us to recreate the success of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge:
The language shall be uniform between all candidates. Unlike many campaign promises, those in our Pledge will be in language drafted by us. It is essential to prevent the candidates from using their own words to cast their commitments, which allows the use of vague or noncommittal language to appear to make a commitment which they may later disclaim. This will also make it much easier to compare commitments between candidates.
The language shall be concrete and express a commitment within the powers of the office to which the candidate aspires. For example, a candidate for president would commit to veto any legislation containing certain provisions, whereas a candidate for Congress could simply commit to vote against any such legislation. A candidate cannot promise to stop open-carry laws, for instance, but they can promise to vote against them.
The candidate shall sign each item to which they commit. They will be presented with a list, with an area to sign for each commitment. They need not commit to everything on the list, but whatever commitments they make they must sign individually. We believe that this will have a greater effect than simply checking off a box.
For the implementation of this system, we will start at the presidential level. As with the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, we believe that the attention and public interest that accompany a presidential race will allow our Pledge to be more effective also at the Congressional, state, and local levels. We will present the itemized list of commitments to each candidate at the first primary debate, so that they may sign in a highly publicized setting, and so that their answers may immediately be available for comparison. We will draft separate lists of commitments for the two parties, based on the issues that their respective voters identify as vote-moving issues. After the primary process finishes, we will consolidate the two lists into one final list and present it to the candidates, without their foreknowledge, at the first general debate. Candidates will be asked to guess which commitments they made last time they answered, and then to reaffirm their commitments, item by item, for the general election cycle. We believe that this will inhibit candidates from drifting towards the center and fine-tuning their message for the different environment of a general election.
In order to ensure candidates follow through on their commitments after the election, we will not only publicize the Pledge by means of debates and other cable news venues, but also collect the email addresses of respondents in our polls about vote-moving issues. This way, we will be able to notify those same voters who identified these issues as most important when a candidate does something not in accordance with their commitments. We believe that this enforcement mechanism will go a long way to foster increased accountability to the voters and to let the American public know what they are voting for.
The Student Strategy Team of Olivia Bell, Tyler Tate, Caroline Wilcox, Kevin Chao, and Alex Coopersmith were advised by Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform and GU Politics Spring 2017 Fellow.