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.
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.
This new generation watched Arlen Specter collapse in the polls in Pennsylvania, not because of his “moderate” views on social issues, but immediately following his vote for the Obama stimulus spending program. This was followed by longtime Senator Bob Bennett of Utah losing in the party convention and being denied the right to even run in the primary because of his bragging about bringing federal spending back to Utah.
Republicans running for re-election this November all went through the gauntlet of the August 2009 town hall meetings where the usual staid gatherings of 50 folks morphed into 500 person rallies that gave standing ovations to promises to oppose Obamacare and earmarks. That is a level of positive feedback for limited government usually reserved for speeches about tax cuts and gun rights. Sitting Republicans all know the fate of South Carolina’s Bob Inglis who, after supporting a carbon tax and the financial bailout, tried to speak before a Tea Party rally and was booed off stage before God and man and YouTube. He lost his primary in June.
Lastly, the history of the Contracts of 1980 and 1994 demonstrates that the contract is a powerful governing document, not just a campaign tool. Challenges stemmed from the failure of Reagan to present an agenda beyond “Morning in America” in 1984 and the refusal of Republicans to create and impose a new contract in 1996 on both Congress and their presidential candidate. The “failure” of the contract was the failure to impose its discipline each and every election year.
A political contract between a chastened Republican Party and the American people will lead to Republican wins in 2010, but more importantly will force those same Republicans to govern the same way they campaigned on the spending issue.
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