Contract with America

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Contract with America

In the historic 1994 midterm elections, Republicans won a majority in Congress for the first time in forty years, partly on the appeal of a platform called the Contract with America. Put forward by House Republicans, this sweeping ten-point plan promised to reshape government. Its main theme was the decentralization of federal authority: deregulation, tax cuts, reform of social programs, increased power for states, and a balanced Federal Budget were its chief ambitions. With unusual speed, all ten items came to a vote in the House of Representatives within one hundred days, and the House passed nine of the ten measures. Yet, even as House Speaker newt gingrich (R-Ga.) compared the plan to the most important political reforms of the twentieth century, progress on the contract stalled. Senate Republicans were slow to embrace it, Democrats in both chambers denounced it, and President bill clinton threatened to Veto its most radical provisions. Only three of the least controversial measures had become law by the end of 1995 as Congress and the White House battled bitterly over the federal budget.

On the surface, the contract differed little from other modern Republican platforms. It began with a statement of three "core" principles in the form of an argument: the federal government is too big and unresponsive (accountability), and big government programs sap individual and family willpower (responsibility)—and thus an overtaxed and overregulated citizenry cannot pursue the American Dream (opportunity). Republicans had been saying as much for at least two decades. Although Democrats had controlled Congress for more than forty years with an almost opposite view of government's duty to its people, Republicans had held the White House from 1980 to 1992. The election of President Clinton in 1992 was a striking setback for Republican Party strategists. Yet, they took encouragement from voter discontent with the pace of Clinton's legislative plans, two key provisions of which—an economic stimulus package and health care reform—failed to pass even with a Democratic majority in Congress. For the mid-1994 congressional elections, they intended to capitalize on this discontent with a platform that promised quick and dramatic change.

Toward this end, the Contract with America made two promises "to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives." First, it promised to change the way Congress works by requiring that lawmakers follow the same workplace laws as the rest of the country—notably, Sexual Harassment laws—and by strictly reforming the sluggish committee process in the House of Representatives. Second, it promised that the House would vote on the ten key planks of the contract within the first one hundred days of the new Congress. The contract gave these ten planks names such as the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the Taking Back Our Streets Act, and the Personal Responsibility Act. The contract promised action on the following issues: the federal deficit, crime, Welfare reform, family values, middle-class tax cuts, national defense, Social Security, federal deregulation and capital gains tax cuts, legal reform, Civil Law and Product Liability, and term limits for federal lawmakers.

The actual proposals represented a mixture of old and new ideas. Republicans had long supported deregulation of industry, tort reform, and middle-class tax cuts. As a deficit reduction solution, the line-item veto was an old idea: ever since the 1980s, Republicans had called for a presidential power to veto specific parts of federal spending bills (rather than the entire bills). More revolutionary was the contract's related proposal: a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. In the same sense, the welfare reform proposals reflected a long-running debate and yet offered ambitiously strict limits on spending, eligibility, and administration, and even sought to transfer authority over traditionally federal programs to the states. Other proposals grew out of more recent concerns. The crime reform measure was a Republican effort to scale back social spending and increase law enforcement spending, in reaction to the Clinton crime bill of 1994; and proposals to curb U.S. military involvement in the United Nations' peacekeeping missions reflected Republican criticism of Clinton's decisions to send troops to Somalia and Haiti.

The contract met with mixed results in 1995. The House Republican leadership did indeed put each item to a vote within the first one hundred days. It divided each item into one or more bills, and thirty-one of the resulting thirty-two measures passed—only one, for congressional term limits, failed. The Senate moved much more slowly. In part, this was because the Senate, as a debating body, customarily proceeds more cautiously. Another reason was that the senators, unlike their first-year counterparts in the House, were far less eager to pass sweeping reforms: the Senate killed the proposal for a constitutional amendment on the budget, for example, and simply delayed action on several other bills. President Clinton's promise to veto any farranging welfare and budgetary proposals also crimped Republican plans, and by November 1995 this threat had produced a bitter standoff that resulted in the temporary closing of the federal government.Three contract proposals became law: the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-1, 109 Stat. 3), which requires Congress to follow eleven workplace laws; the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-4, 109 Stat. 48), which restricts Congress from imposing mandates on states that are not adequately funded; and the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-13, 109 Stat. 163), which reduces federal paperwork requirements.