Grown-up leaders? The new American oxymoron


A scene from the 2011 State of the Union address. (Melina Mara/WASHINGTON POST)
January 24, 2012

In Congress, 2012 begins the same way 2011 ended. Hope for bipartisan action to solve America’s most pressing challenges — our debt crisis, for one — is a chimera. 

Let’s make this simple. What if we started a pledge that, with enough support, would change the very rules of the game that govern Washington?

In short, let’s start a pledge for our leaders to act like grown-ups. 

Why, if 80 percent of Americans (including 76 percent of Republicans) favor reducing the deficit with at least some tax increases, can’t Congress pass a debt reduction package that includes new tax revenues?

And why, in the face of undeniable evidence that entitlement spending is on an unsustainable trajectory, can’t Congress act to preserve Medicare and Social Security?

The answer is that members are incentivized to answer only to the most vocal and powerful interest groups. Attempts by Congress to force itself to act collectively — like the ill-fated supercommittee — are destined to fail, so long as this holds true. 

So if a pledge to act like grown-ups is what it will take to get Washington to act responsibly, let’s do it. I’m 31 years old, and you know what? I’ve made the form.

Some have proposed a third party, but political scientists have long observed that plurality rule, winner-take-all electoral systems (like our own) always tend to support two parties. Voters will always be reluctant to waste their votes on a third-party candidate who has no chance of being elected. 

Others have proposed “throwing them all out.” That seems to be a familiar refrain every election cycle, and the last three elections we have indeed thrown out a lot of members of Congress. Yet the surviving members have only strengthened their hold on power with carefully designed, gerrymandered districts.

Resolution to this standoff in Washington can only come through a change in the institution — and that can only come from us, the voters.  Congress won’t change itself.

I propose something that could change Washington, not from the ideological margins, but from the inside out: Signatories will pledge to act in the interests of the majority of their constituents, rather than the most vocal minority or a moneyed minority that fills their campaign coffers. Simple.

And they will act collectively to accomplish a set of defined goals: Reducing the deficit, reducing income inequality, making our entitlements efficient and sustainable, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, cleaning our environment, and keeping America safe while maintaining our good name. 

When their constituencies are at odds with majority, signatories of the pledge will remain open to compromise and willing to let the majority move forward in the face of special-interest opposition. 

This pledge will render null-and-void any pledge on taxes and spending that our leaders in Congress have signed before.

Voters can sign the pledge too. And when more and more do, our members of Congress will notice. If they can count, they’ll plainly see that it is to their benefit to talk about addressing problems through cooperation, not through shrill “red meat” politics — even during the primary campaigns. 

This pledge would commit the Democrats to upholding the entitlements signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, while providing cover from the AARP.

For the Republicans, this pledge will recommit the Grand Ol’ Party to the principals of real fiscal conservatism.

Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge commits members of Congress to a specific policy rather than a national goal. There is a danger in such a strategy.  The pledge I am proposing commits us toward collective ends instead of handcuffs us to inflexible means.

Let’s be clear: Someone with a serious commitment to cooperation would support getting us out of this budget crisis with spending cuts and tax increases. Someone who signs this pledge wouldn’t be afraid to embrace the Simpson-Bowles commission recommendations for reducing the budget deficit.

This pledge won’t just commit members of Congress to act, it will commit them to act in our names. 

“You cannot point to others and say, ‘This is their choice; this is not my responsibility,’” Robert F. Kennedy told an audience in Indiana during his 1968 run for the presidency. “When elected or appointed government officials act…they act in your name.”

The signatories of this Public Service Pledge will even do one better. We will devote our careers to doing big things to solve big problems.

The cost of our inaction is mounting. America’s infrastructure, the foundation from which the Greatest Generation built a superpower, is deteriorating. We continue to threaten the planet by pouring massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Our schools, our political institutions and our public discourse are inadequate. Our national debt is now more than $15 trillion.

These challenges demand collective action, but our political leaders seem content to leave these challenges to their kids, like me.

You know what they should do instead of leaving problems to their children? Pledge to act like grown-ups.

Thomas L. Day is the founder of PublicServicePledge.com .

More from On Leadership:

The candidates’ best leadership attributes

The problematic role of first lady

How to be a successful federal leader

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