Revisiting the Contract With America

Revisiting the Contract With America

By Jeremy Lott - August 28, 2010

Ever since the first Obama stimulus bill last year, Republicans have been dogged by charges that they are the Party of No. Critics go so far as to invite Big Lebowski-inspired mockery by calling them "nihilists." (So far nobody has followed my suggestion to form a Republican Nihilist Caucus, but give it about a week.) They say that Republican opposition to Democratic legislation is entirely opportunistic, based on partisan pique rather than underlying principal.

Criticism from without echoes a debate that's roiling the Republican Party. The question currently on the table for congressional Republicans is: Should they offer voters another Contract with America? The only problem with that question is what it assumes. The Contract with America was one thing when it was introduced. The myth of the Contract with America is something else.

The Contract was a document unveiled by then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich on the eve of the 1994 elections. It set itself against "this era of official evasion and posturing" by offering a "detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print." It committed the House Republicans who signed it to enacting certain procedural reforms and to holding votes on 10 heavily poll-tested pieces of legislation - on what Gingrich called "80/20 issues" - in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress. Republicans proceeded to win the House and pretty much do what the Contract had committed them to. They made the changes and held the votes. Many of the proposals became law.

Critics at the time called the Contract a "gimmick" and pointed out that most voters hadn't even heard of it when they went to the ballot box in 1994. Republicans disputed that. They insisted that the Contract played a significant role in their historic victory. But they didn't create a similar document for 1996 or any election since. Why not?

One answer has to do with the mood of the electorate. The 1994 election was the high water mark - so far - of anti-government sentiment. After the unpopular government shutdowns and President Bill Clinton's effective use of the Oklahoma City bombing to associate small government sentiment with domestic terrorism, Republicans weren't willing to risk it. It could be that something like the Contract is possible only when voters are well and truly fed up.

Yet the interesting thing about the Contract, when you actually read it, is how much of a mixed bag it is when it comes to size-of-government issues. To be sure, it does call for a balanced budget amendment, a line-item veto, welfare reform, and tax cuts. However, it also includes calls for more federal funds for law enforcement, more military spending, more Social Security spending (by removing of a recently-enacted tax on benefits), even the expansion of sexual harassment law (to cover Congress; and sayonara Senator Packwood).

True, the Contract promised to bring significant legislation to a vote in the first hundred days of a Republican House. Before it got to that, however, it promised to make eight procedural reforms on the first day. These including term limits for committee chairs, and an end to proxy voting and most closed hearings. Republicans pledged to do this "To restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves."

So while the document purported to put forward a positive agenda for Republicans, it was at least as much about highlighting and capitalizing on Democratic scandals. The Contract was meant to declare that the current state of things was rotten, but would change if only voters firmly showed Democrats the door. That's why the GOP didn't really consider issuing a follow-up until the current election cycle. If they do, be sure to read it closely. The poll-tested grievances should be revealing.


Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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