Politicians pledge to not use sense

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Should doctors who are behind on their taxes be tapped to repair the nation's highway system?

If you answered "what?" or "that sounds like a nonsensical question," well, you are clearly not ready for a career in Congress.

You may have heard the nation's Highway Trust Fund for repairing roads and bridges is about to go broke. That's because the tax used to pay for it — the federal gas tax — has been fixed at a flat rate of 18 cents per gallon for 20 years, going back to when gas cost only a buck a gallon.

So Congress has been racing pell-mell this month to fix this crisis that's been simmering for two decades. And what they've come up with is a Rube Goldberg contraption even by their convoluted standards.

One idea is to fund the roads by seizing Medicare payments due to doctors who are behind on paying their taxes. Another lets companies underfund their pensions in return for a temporary bump in taxes. Another just steals the money from a fund for cleaning up leaking underground storage tanks.

Washington state Rep. Rick Larsen blasted all this as using "duct tape and some scrap metal" to prop up the roads. Another congressman said they were creating "a pothole in the pension system to fill a pothole in the highways."

But then most everyone voted for these ideas anyway!

Any sane person at this point might wonder: Why not just raise the gas tax a few pennies? It's a tax that hasn't budged in 20 years, even for inflation. It's paid by road users. And because gas is now four bucks a gallon, drivers would scarcely notice.

The reason they don't is: They can't. They signed pledges. So many Republicans have committed to "no new taxes" that this most obvious solution is the only one that's a nonstarter.

Dysfunctional system

All this congressional adhering to pledges and promises has, ironically, made it dysfunctional.

Recently two political-science professors, from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, studied the pledge phenomenon and concluded they are political gold — for the special-interest groups that promote them.

They lock politicians into positions better than the most lavish campaign contribution ever could. The positions tend to ratchet in only one direction (no new taxes means you can never undo a tax cut, for example). And because the pledges bar politicians from responding to changing conditions, they can lead to outcomes that make little sense and which the broader public may not support.

They pledged away their brains.


Danny Westneat is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Email: dwestneat@seattletimes.com