Keithley’s ‘fiscal pledge’ may have unintended consequences

As I wrote last week, Brad Keithley, an Anchorage-based politically active lawyer and consultant, sent out a questionnaire to candidates, testing their fiscally conservative creds. For a few years now, Keithley has been focused on the state’s budget problems. He was toying at taking a run for governor, but decided against it. However, he still wants to make a difference. He has said that he is willing to put up to $200,000 of his own money trying to elect candidates who are serious about cutting the budget. To that end, he sent all the candidates that questionnaire. He’ll use those answers, along with the results of a poll that he commissioned, to choose the candidates.

One of the 11 questions is the following about a pledge: “Will you publicly commit prior to the election not to join any legislative caucus that conditions your membership upon your support of and vote for whatever budget is sent to the floor by the Finance Committee?”

Keithley hasn’t said if an affirmative answer is requisite for his support. It is, however, implied.

Like many of the plethora of pledges, and reforms that follow pledges, on the surface, this one sounds like a good, noble one.

But like all things that sound good and noble, the results often backfire. Remember how great earmark reform sounded? It was the anti-government tea party influence that drove that one. What’s happened since? The money is still being spent. But it’s now going to government agencies. What earmark reform has done—which should make any tea partier spurt out her tea–is to empower thousands of bureaucrats, rather than elected officials, to decide which projects get funded.

No new tax pledges? Think the government shutdown that caused a $24 billion hit to the U.S. economy. Think a Congress run amuck. Think a Congress that hasn’t passed a real budget in five years. Think Ted Cruz.

Anti-ObamaCare pledges. Gun pledges. Immigration pledges. Social Security pledges. What these pledges often do is to lock elected officials into rigid positions and keep them from making the kind of open-minded decisions that we elect them to make. The national good-government group, No Labels. co-chaired by former presidential candidate Jon Hunstman, makes the case that politicians shouldn’t sign any pledges at all:

These types of pledges have proliferated in recent years as a way for powerful interest groups to control members of Congress, and they’ve created a perverse dynamic in Washington. Members of Congress who stick to these rigid pledges are usually rewarded with more campaign cash and party support. Members willing to make tough decisions and think for themselves are punished with attack ads and primary challenges.

Closer to home, campaign finance reform, pushed in large part by Democrats, has hurt that party’s fundraising ability more than it has Republicans, say nothing of empowering the bureaucrats at APOC with prosecutorial authority.

Caucus reform, is, perhaps, a different animal. But even that kind of reform has backfired.

As David Frum in the Atlantic Month writes:

In short, in the name of “reform,” Americans over the past half century have weakened political authority. Instead of yielding more accountability, however, these reforms have yielded more lobbying, more expense, more delay, and more indecision…

And more chaos.

What I see happening in Alaska, is that some candidates will sign the pledge, and others, who perhaps are not as vulnerable, won’t. The ones who won’t will then likely make deals with the ones who will.

The result? If enough sign the pledge, what could happen is more backroom decision making. More games and less transparency, and more of the kind of chaos and dysfunction that we see in D.C., particularly since earmark and other reforms have party and caucus discipline on the run.

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12 thoughts on “Keithley’s ‘fiscal pledge’ may have unintended consequences

  1. Mark Fish

    I Share your dismay. Let’s hope Amanda can help provide some of that accountability. It’s true we need more transparency and more voices engaged.

  2. Jim Bob

    There is no accountability, Mark. Bad facts are money bombed out of existence every other November. This is no Ownership State, this is a Pwned State.

  3. Chris Lloyd

    A pledge to not declare the sausage tasty before you know what it’s made out of is not only a great idea, but one that is the Republican Party’s worst nightmare. The state reps and senators who are fiscally responsible only toward oil company shareholders will find themselves between a rock and a hard place on this one. As the oil companies have long known, it takes very little money to buy oneself ones very own Alaska legislature.

    I can see a smaller majority House caucus that will actually start slashing the state budget being elected as a result of this. Such a move will devastate Alaska and finally drive the Republicans into the minority: go Keithley, go!

  4. Art

    Reflection on the influence of Amanda Coyne…

    One day you may find comfort in her blog and another day you may find discomfort. But she is absolutely the most consequential blogger – and news-breaker – in Alaska today.

    Amanda is a rare breed – a person of journalistic integrity who blogs.

  5. Mark Fish

    It’s simple, if a candidate does not want to sign a pledge , then don’t. It’s a candidate who signs a pledge for political gain rather than sincere beliefs that is the problem. Those rats will always run for the dark corners, pledge or no pledge. Each candidate will need to justify what they agree to if held accountable by a vigilant press. Right? To pledge or not to pledge is not the issue transparency is.

  6. Anonymous

    Mr. Keithley,
    Please run for Anchorage mayor. We nearly became Detroit with Mayor Begich and his unheard of 5-year deals with the unions.

    Mayor Sullivan towed the line and reduced the size of government…despite the resistance from city employees.

    But the guy running around town claiming to be “the next mayor” is already making promises to unions and I fear our taxes will go through the roof!
    Run Brad!

  7. Royce

    Response to comment posted by G. Fellow :
    Slight clarification, I think it is Keithley’s intention to bypass the $500 contribution limit with an independent expenditure committee which has no limits. With talk of engaging in only 3 – 5 races and a presumed commitment of $200K, that means the avaerage amount per race could exceed $50K (nothiing to sneeze at) and could be highly seductive to a floundering candidate in search of dollars. It is also interesting to note that Keithley’s “candidate choices” to date were significantly out of step with their constituencies. The senate candidate he supported barely got to 30% in a two-way race and the house candidate he supported didnt even get 200 votes on election night. From what I’ve witnessed from Keithley is his talk and ego is bigger than his walk. There’s no doubt the guy likes attention.

  8. CPA

    About the only thing Brad Keithley is correct about is simply that our government is spending too much. Your analysis, although I didn’t think about it, is spot on. I hope legislators are strong enough to say no and not be bullied into signing the pledge. I think Mr. Keithley and his team need to re-visit the issue and make a more informed decision oon how too proceed to advance their agenda.

  9. Lynn Willis

    The law and rules can only go so far with politicians. As you point out Amanda when an elected official is intent on circumventing the intent of a law he or she will prevail in almost every case. That is especially true in Alaska where our recent history shows that even the most egregious behavior will not cause our state elected officials to police themselves especially when the “serious players” are involved; therefore, in the VECO scandal enforcement regarding behavior of Alaskan politicians became a federal responsibility.
    Mr. Keithley has a more immediate problem because any incumbent candidate who signs the pledge, for even a possible contribution, is very likely to violate state law. Joining the majority legislative caucus is a legal constituent service. As far as I can tell so is agreeing to their terrible policy that you can only remain a member of the caucus if you support, without challenge, the proposed budget. To not join the majority caucus in recognition of Mr. Keithley’s terms (despite a very well-meaning motive by Mr. Keithley) appears to create the image that a candidate has, or will, accept a contribution in exchange for not performing a legal constituent service.
    The legality of Mr. Keithley’s efforts was addressed in an earlier posting. A sitting legislator cannot agree to perform (or not perform) a legal duty for a contribution or even the promise of a contribution. If I sign a pledge for a political contribution or even the expectation of a contribution I have violated the law. This law is as it should be.
    Mr. Keithley well knows who the state budget busters are starting with Governor Parnell. Mr. Keithley could have followed the example of those using the “Citizens United” decision to intensely focus on the offenders in the form of messages to the voters that have no link to any specific campaign.

    AS 24.60.030(e)(2); A legislator may not directly, or by authorizing another to act on the legislator’s behalf,
    (1) ……..
    (2) state or imply that the legislator will perform or refrain from performing a lawful constituent service as a result of a person’s decision to provide or not provide a political contribution, donate or not donate to a cause favored by the legislator, or provide or not provide a thing of value.

  10. Garand Fellow

    Yes, and who is this Keithley to demand anything of any Alaskan? Can the entire Alaska Legislature be overturned for $200,000, and in increments of $500 each?

    At best Keithley is pedantic and silly. I will not say that at worst he is corrupt. Thank you for this fine article and for your analysis.

    If the blogs abaout this fellow are correct then he should be sent back to his wife in Texas. We are too busy to take care of him.

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