Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Don’t make promises...

It’s that time again: U.S. presidential elections are in a bit more than a year, so, of course, furious campaigning has started. The religious-fanatic morons are telling us how God is guiding them, but they’re just insane. Rick Perry, after officially praying for rain, is promising to end abortion while his state burns from the endless drought.

On the more sane side, yesterday I heard Mitt Romney on the radio, promising to eliminate taxes on investments for the middle class.

Of course, it was the same in the lead-in to the 2008 election, as it’s the same every time. Then, all the candidates, including the current president, promised to do this or that with tax reform, to create their version of health-care coverage, and so on.

Here’s the thing: they are all making promises they can’t keep. None of this is up to them.

Congress controls the budget. Congress levies taxes, and is responsible for any changes to the tax system. It took legislation to enact the health-care bill, which looked little like what Mr Obama (or anyone else) had promised solemnly and fervently.

That’s how our system of checks and balances, our tripartite government, works. The president can do certain things with executive orders. He can make appointments according to his own plans. He can call on executive agencies to do rule-making magic in support of his policies. He can limit Congress with vetos. But it’s the legislative branch that controls much of what the executive candidates like to promise. And even for the other things, the legislature can make laws that negate or forbid executive orders, can refuse to confirm appointees, and can override vetos. And it’s they who give the executive agencies their rulemaking authority in the first place, and they can change its scope or take it away. All overseen by the judiciary, of course, which will rule on disputes and can be predictable or full of surprises.

George Pataki was elected governor of New York in 1994, largely on his promise to restore the death penalty in the state. When he took office in January, he did just that... and the state’s highest court promptly declared the current death-penalty law to be unconstitutional. The State Assembly refused to address it with new legislation, and Mr Pataki’s campaign promise amounted to nothing.

To the extent that we believe campaign promises at all, we need to take them with large grains of salt, and consider whether the things the candidates are promising would actually be within their purview when they take office. If not, they can try to influence things, but the legislative and judicial branches are not often easy to steer.

It seems the songs we’re singing
Are all about tomorrow,
Tunes of promises you can’t keep.
Every moment bringing
The love I can only borrow,
You’re telling me lies in your sleep.

Do you think I’m not aware of what you’re saying,
Or why you’re saying it?
Is it hard to keep me where you want me staying?
Don’t go on betraying it.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

— Tim Hardin, Don’t Make Promises (1966)

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