Tomorrow, House Republicans are set to release their “governing agenda” — a Contract with America that is more than just a campaign tool, drawing as it does on 30 years of history.
When Obama, Reid, and Pelosi took combined power in January 2009, many Americans feared that they would maintain one-party rule of Congress and the presidency for many years.
As 2009 progressed, however, Americans reacted quickly and negatively to the massive government spending and debt involved in the repeated bailouts and stimulus bills, and the plans to have the government take over health care, energy, banks, the Internet, and other targets of opportunity. As the Democrats’ vague campaign slogans were turned into thousand-page assaults on America’s most traditional value, liberty, the Democrats’ programs became less popular and Democratic politicians themselves, from Reid to Obama, faded in the polls.
Before the year ended, Republicans began privately to wonder, then hope, then whisper that perhaps their time in the wilderness could be shorter than the 40 years from 1955 to 1995 when House Republicans were consigned to minority status, or the shorter 12 years from 1995 to 2007 when Democrats were out of power in the House. Might Republicans win a majority in the House after only four years in exile?
And from talk radio to the Tea Party activists to the Republican leadership in the House, there emerged one consensus: we need another “Contract with America.” What would it say? Who would write it? Bottom up or top down? These questions swirled around the collective decision that a meaningful victory in November 2010 required a document linking Republican candidates, a majority of Americans, and a concrete list of political convictions, principles, and actual commitments to take action.
Another Contract with America? While there is widespread agreement-in fact a public demand for such a document-it is an interesting question why. There was a contract in 1994, 16 years ago. It was not repeated in 1996. There was no demand for a contract, nor one offered for the next seven election cycles. Why now? Why do so many Republicans and center-right independents, Perot voters, and Tea Party activists view the Contract as important and worthwhile, both looking back to 1994 and forward to 2010?
The story of the Contract with America begins not in 1994, but in 1980. In his book, The Enduring Revolution: How the Contract with America Continues to Shape the Nation, Fox News reporter Major Garrett describes a private citizen suggesting to then RNC chairman Bill Brock that there should be a joint event with Republican presidential candidate Reagan and all the House and Senate candidates running that year. Brock enlisted a freshman House member from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, who was (already) the chairman of the long-range planning committee for the National Republican Congressional Committee. (Any bets on whether there was a long-range planning committee before Newt showed up in Washington?)
There was some drama as Gingrich initially canceled the joint event — because the Reagan campaign staff appeared to want a photo opportunity without a joint statement on policy. But finally, on September 15, the event did come off, as Ronald Reagan and more than 150 Republican candidates for the House and Senate gathered on the Capitol steps and jointly committed to a “statement of pledges”: First,
Substantial cuts in the money that Congress spends on itself. Second: Selective cuts in Government spending to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse, and to fight inflation. Third: Across-the-board cuts in individual income taxes and increased incentives for savings, investment and capital recovery. Fourth: All-out efforts to encourage more private investment and more permanent jobs, especially in the central cities. Fifth: Stepped-up military efforts to make the nation’s foreign policy credible and to secure peace and stability in the world.
Party platforms are wish lists. This was a “to do” list, endorsed not by party activists in a conference room but by the very candidates for office who could be held responsible for making things happen. Here was Reagan’s agenda becoming the Republican agenda through the candidates themselves. In his Washington Post column published on September 10, David Broder was alone in noticing that something very different had just happened. “The ‘contract’ Reagan and the Republicans are offering,” he wrote, “…represents a serious and healthy departure from the norms of contemporary presidential campaigning.”
Fifty-five days later, Reagan won the presidency and Republicans gained 33 House seats and 12 Senate seats (six of the victors were at the event), winning control of the Senate for the first time since 1955. Broder reported that the “junior House Republicans…concocted the notion and sold it to a somewhat reluctant Reagan campaign.” This was the beginning of the Party of Lincoln becoming the Reagan Republican party…and the then-few Reaganites in Congress organized this beginning of the long march through the institutions of the Republican Party.
When Reagan won it was credible for his party to insist that they had not simply defeated a failed president Jimmy Carter, but rather had won a clear mandate on the five issues publicly endorsed at the Capitol steps event September 15.
THE CONTRACT WITH AMERICA OF 1994 began to come together in 1993 when staffers for Gingrich and Rep. Dick Armey started to flesh out a Republican alternative to Bill Clinton. Yes, they agreed, the first and necessary step was opposition, but backbenchers like Ohio’s John Kasich argued successfully that the Republicans should draft and force votes on their own budget to compete with and offer a contrast to the one the Democrats would enact. Armey, with his chief of staff Kerry Knott and press secretary Ed Gillespie, took the lead in creating the Contract, first compiling the list of issues and then assigning the hard work of putting pleasant-sounding ideas into real world legislative language. The resulting 10 legislative proposals, such as welfare reform and cutting the capital gains tax, totaled 140 pages of legislative text. There were also eight congressional reforms such as a House rule requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes.
RNC chairman Haley Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi, strongly supported the Contract, devoting an office at RNC headquarters to promoting it and paying for the $700,000 full page ad in the TV Guide, the largest circulation magazine at the time. The ad was perforated and urged voters to tear it out and “keep this page to hold us accountable.” It had little boxes to check off as each part of the Contract was voted on. The bottom line read, “If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.”
The Contract promised that if they won a majority in the House, Republicans would hold up-or-down votes on its 10 items within 100 days. The establishment press “rewrote” the Contract after the election, telling the world that the Republicans had promised to pass all 10 bills through the House and Senate. This was done to set up the new Gingrich House for failure, but instead put pressure on Senate Republicans who had refused to participate in the Contract. When Republican senators returned home to their first congressional recess, they learned that their constituents expected them to enact the Contract.
Most of the Contract was not only voted on in the House within the first 100 days, but enacted by the Senate as well, with perhaps 60 percent of it becoming law. The two big items that did not completely pass were the two constitutional amendments — a balanced budget amendment and term limits on congressmen. The balanced budget did win the two-thirds of the votes required in the House, but could not garner two-thirds in the Senate. Term limits could not get enough Democratic votes to win the supermajority needed, but Republicans changed the House rules to term limit all committee chairs, which had a dramatic effect in culling out the old bulls over time.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?