They didn’t actually ask me but...

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By Merilee Dannemann

Read my lips: No new pledges. How’s that for a campaign slogan?
The recent debate over the federal debt limit showed millions of Americans just how dysfunctional our federal leadership has become, if they needed another demonstration.
Since the 2012 Congressional election season has already begun, it’s not too early to talk about what we really want from our representatives in Congress.
New Mexico has only three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, two of which have incumbent advantages, and one Senate seat on the ballot next year.
There is no reason today to believe that the deep division among voters will change much. I speculate that public opinion will continue to be roughly evenly divided, with many independent voters choosing the lesser of two evils, and that the 2012 election will leave neither major party with a clear majority.
Therefore, if Congress is to be capable of making decisions based on merit and not merely what can be arm-twisted, compromise is going to be necessary.
The harsh reality is that it won’t matter what you think is “right” or how passionately you believe that the other guys are wrong. Your preferred party will not be able to force its will on both houses of Congress and the President, whether that President is Mr. Obama or someone else.
So, Mr. and Ms. New Mexico voter, your cherished partisan beliefs may not matter because they are not implementable. Neither are mine, for that matter.
There is only one critical question to ask of our candidates for Congress: Assuming your party won’t have a clear majority, what are you going to do to make Congress work again?
I hope to be able to ask that question of the candidates in all three New Mexico congressional districts in coming months.
Any candidate who makes an irrevocable or inflexible “pledge” on any matter of policy, if elected, will be part of the problem.   
Pledging is currently a Republican fad, principally promising to oppose any tax increases.  We can only hope that the pledging strategy won’t also catch on with Democrats, but here is an example of how this limits policy choices.
Thoughtful commentators, including the Simpson-Bowles U.S. Debt Commission, have called for both reduction of taxes and “tax simplification,” getting rid of special tax provisions.  This would save millions of Americans from, to quote the Debt Commission report, “the cost and burden of tax preparation and compliance.”  
The special tax provisions are mostly deductions ­— items like the tax deduction on mortgage interest. To simplify the tax code, it would be necessary to eliminate some of those deductions, which some people call a tax increase, even if the increase is offset by a general reduction in rates.   
In a divided Congress, beneficial change can only happen if members are flexible enough to negotiate meaningfully and arrive at solutions that won’t be blocked by parliamentary maneuverings.
I invite you to challenge the candidates as to how they will contribute to restoring a workable government, based on getting real about the likelihood that their party will not have free rein.
You can ask whether they have made or intend to make any pledges, and if so, under what circumstances they would modify those positions. You can ask the candidates for U.S. Senate, if their party is in the minority, under what circumstances they would participate in a filibuster.
Right now, the need to get Congress functioning again as a body that can reach decisions outweighs most other considerations.
I’d much rather see thoughtful compromises than the debacle we saw on the debt ceiling crisis.   

Merilee Dannemann
© New Mexico
News Service 2011