A New Contract With America
Posted on September 30, 2014
(This originally appeared in The Hill.)
I had flown in from Chicago to attend the ceremony, but I wasn’t in on all of the details.
I had moved from Washington back home two months earlier and was working for Rep. Denny Hastert in Batavia, Ill., after having spent five years in Rep. Bob Michel’s leadership office.
The Contract with America had not made much of a splash in the heartland of the country. Some analysts thought that it unnecessarily put a mark on the backs of congressional Republicans. Why give the Democrats something to shoot at, when things were clearly deteriorating for President Clinton and his allies on Capitol Hill? Why change the subject from the failures of the president to the future plans of Newt Gingrich?
The ceremony itself was both celebratory and solemn. It was a beautiful day to have an outside event, on the West Front of the Capitol building. As events go, this was a long one, with speaker after speaker making bold promises about how they were going to cure a sick Congress.
Some of the promises seemed pretty simple. Make Congress abide by the laws it passes on to the rest of us. Audit the books of the House, which were a real mess, as it turned out. Get some truth in budgeting.
Some of the promises seemed outlandish, unattainable or unrealistic. A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution? Term limits?
Others were mundane. Regulatory reform, an end to proxy voting.
The theatrics of the Contract with America made for compelling television. Nobody trusted politicians back then (is it any better now?), so Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his team promised in writing to fulfill every jot and tittle of that contract in an advertisement that ran in TV Guide.
If you think about it, TV Guide was the perfect place to make that promise, because the whole event was built for television.
It has been 20 years since the bright day in Washington, and looking back, I can see both the strengths and the flaws in how the Republican revolution was started.
The principle strength was that the contract gave the Republicans a positive agenda. Voters want to know what you are going to do once you take office.
Those promises came with an accountability mechanism. If we don’t do what we say, kick us out of office. The Republicans did exactly what they said they would do, and that gave them enormous credibility going into the election of 1996.
In many ways, the biggest flaw of the contract was its limited scope.
There was no Senate participation. The House guys were so focused on their own Republican Conference, they seemed to forget that they can’t make laws without the other body.
No senators penned the contract, and the feeling among most of them that it was child’s play.
Despite the crowded agenda promised in the contract, it didn’t take on some of the biggest issues that would prove to drive the debt: middle-class entitlements and healthcare costs.
The contract never included a conservative alternative to the many problems facing our healthcare system. It was as if the party wanted to put a spike in the heart of HillaryCare and move on, hoping the issue would never rise again.
It also didn’t include middle-class entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, that continue to grow exponentially, putting America ever closer to bankruptcy.
Sure, the contract took dead aim at welfare reform and hit it square in the eyes, but that had only a limited impact on the long-range budget of the country.
Would it behoove the Republicans to make another set of promises like the ones they made two decades ago?
I think it would. The American people are looking for positive solutions, not just negative complaints. The contract had a boatload of them, and when the House Republicans fulfilled those promises, no matter how limited, it gave them enough credibility to keep control of the House for a dozen years.