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.
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The Contract was a governing document, not a campaign tool. Without it, a Republican House and Senate elected in response to Clinton’s overreach would have drifted. Each committee chairman would have acted in his own interests — and spent more money on his particular zone of control. No Contract, no discipline. No Contract, no theme to the pudding. The Contract provided an exoskeleton to give structure and protection to the House and (reluctant) Senate Republican majorities.
Following the discipline of the Contract, Republicans passed welfare reform, a serious pro-growth tax reform, and real budgets that brought the deficit, then projected to be $200 billion forever, into balance and then surplus within four years. Clinton vetoed much of their work, but eventually signed welfare reform and a cut in the capital gains tax from 28 to 20 percent, the first tax cut enacted by Congress since Reagan’s 1981 across the board tax rate cuts.
The Contract worked so well in 1994 because it was unmistakably a governing document that could be used to hold elected officials accountable. It was good politics only because it credibly drove good policy.
SO WHY NO CONTRACT in 1996? House Republicans could have issued a Contract that said: “Re-elect this Republican Congress and make Bob Dole president and we will not only commit to holding votes on these issues but we can now promise that we will pass them and a Republican president will sign them.” Two reasons for the failure to propose a Contract in 1996 have been given. First, many assumed Dole would buck the imposition of Reagan/Gingrich party discipline on “his” presidential race. Second, the House Republicans had used the Contract to keep committee chairmen under party caucus control in 1995 and 1996 and believed they did not need another Contract to continue this discipline. Gingrich and Armey could, and did, remind the newly minted committee chairmen that “we brought you here.” That discipline began to fray in 1997 and 1998, leading to the revolt by the chairmen of the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees that toppled Gingrich and restored much of the power to appropriators and parochial interests, trumping unified party message, vision, and accomplishments.
By 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush’s agenda trumped any congressional Republican vision, and Bush’s agenda — such as more spending on “education” and Medicare, and, later, nation-building in Mesopotamia — did not include spending restraint. Without caucus discipline, the appropriators were unleashed to fundraise through earmarks, ignoring the voters at home whose approbation and campaign contributions were less valued.
For the next eight years the GOP was the Bush party, and congressional Republicans could not, with credibility, announce a governing set of priorities different from those imposed by the Bush administration.
With the end of the Bush administration, and lacking a Republican in the White House, the Tea Party activists and talk radio and movement-if not party — spokesmen such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity began to drive the articulation of a Republican alternative to the Obama agenda.
Ryan Hecker, an activist with the Tea Party Patriots, speaking at CPAC 2010 last February 18, urged Americans to come to the group’s website at TheContract.org to vote on a list of 22 different planks for a Contract from America. Nearly half a million online votes were cast and a list of 10 proposals was unveiled on April 15, 2010, coinciding with the national rally organized by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks.
Republican House leader John Boehner is now building on the models of 1980, 1994, and the Tea Party leader Hecker. He has assigned one of the smartest House members — Californian Kevin McCarthy — the task of creating a new vision of the Contract that will be unveiled in late September. McCarthy has been on his own “listening tour” and created a website, AmericaSpeakingOut.com, that was unveiled May 25 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The website is a technically advanced site that will allow Americans to propose ideas for legislation, and comment and vote on the ideas of others.
This interactive website is creating a series of governing legislative ideas, not a collection of campaign slogans. It’s an official congressional website, not a campaign website. Once the ideas have been selected and prioritized they will be put into actual legislative language — just as was done in 1994 — and as public documents can be picked up and endorsed by any candidate for any office, Republican or Democrat.
There are many similarities in the efforts of 1980, 1994, and 2010. And big differences. In 1980 and 1994 Republicans could point to decades of Democrat control and credibly promise to do differently. Today Republicans have to begin with the fact that they had the House for 12 years. Much of the “low hanging fruit” as Ed Gillespie calls it, has been picked. Still, there are newly introduced ideas such as bans on bailouts and earmarks, waiting periods where legislation must be posted online for five days before it can be voted on, the creation of an anti-appropriations committee to subpoena bureaucrats, investigate the bureaucracy, and propose cuts in spending.
The 1994 Contract was polled to see if various ideas had popular support. McCarthy’s website AmericaSpeakingOut.com will allow the ideas to flow from the public, allow voters to signal not only their support or opposition but the intensity of their views through their interaction with the site. There will be more bottom up buy-in in 2010 than was technically possible in 1994.
The largest challenge to the idea and possible effectiveness of a renewed Contract with America in 2010 is passing the laugh test. Why should Tea Party activists, Ron Paul enthusiasts, and disappointed Reagan Republicans trust Republican congressmen who were in office aiding and abetting George W. Bush in his years of spending dangerously?
THERE ARE THREE REASONS optimism that November 2010 will bring more and better Republicans into Washington and that a new Contract with America, by whatever name, will strengthen this movement.
First, for the Republicans to win a House majority requires defeating at least 40 sitting Democrats and replacing them with 40 plus challengers untainted by the free-spending Bush years. In addition, there are 20 Republicans retiring who will also be replaced by fresh troops. Any GOP majority will have a caucus of 218-plus Republicans in Congress consisting of at least 60 — and perhaps as many as 80 —freshmen. The new congressmen will have been elected in a cycle when pork barrel spending, bringing home the bacon, and earmarks were career-ending decisions, not campaign slogans.
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.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?