'Pledge' doesn't come close to the 'Contract with America'

The predictions of big gains for the GOP in November's elections have brought on inevitable comparisons to the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution of 1994, and those comparisons got stronger today with the House Republican leadership's release of its "Pledge to America," an obvious echo of the "Contract with America" of 16 years ago. But if the "Pledge" is an echo of its predecessor, it is a weak one. Putting aside the question of whether the ideas espoused in either GOP document are good ones, it is clear that the current Republican promise to voters is far less specific and bold than the one the party made in 1994.

The "Contract with America" was just over two pages long, but it packed in some big ideas. It began with an eight-point plan to reform the way Congress operates, such as requiring that all laws apply equally to members of Congress and the American people, putting limits on the length of service of committee chairs, opening committee meetings to the public and requiring a three-fifths majority for a tax increase. It was followed by 10 bills the Republicans promised to vote on within 100 days of taking over the majority, including a balanced budget amendment; a line-item veto for the president; an anti-crime bill to provide more money for prisons and less for social programs; welfare reform; child tax credits and the repeal of the marriage penalty; tort reform; and term limits for Congress. The text of each bill was made public from the beginning.

The "Pledge to America" is 21 pages long, and while some of the philosophy behind it mirrors the "Contract with America" in its emphasis on smaller government and lower taxes, the medicine it calls for isn't nearly so strong. Rather than proposing a balanced budget amendment, the pledge calls for a freeze on many, but not all, domestic programs, saving about $100 billion next year or approximately 7.7 percent of the projected $1.3 trillion budget deficit. The pledge also calls for a federal hiring freeze — but excludes defense or public safety-related jobs. And the current GOP version of a freeze wouldn't actually shrink the size of government, as it would allow the replacement of workers who leave. When it comes to the real drivers of the nation's long-term budget problems — Medicare and Social Security — the GOP offers a solution no more specific than "reviewing them regularly."

The savings promoted in the pledge are dwarfed by the expense of the tax cuts it contains. A key plank is making permanent all of the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire Jan. 1. That will cost more than $3 trillion over the next decade. Just keeping the tax cuts for the wealthy, which President Barack Obama opposes but Republicans favor, would cost $700 billion over the next 10 years. Republicans are also proposing a new tax break for small businesses and some increased expenditures, including more spending for a ballistic missile shield.

The Republicans are releasing their pledge on the day when some popular elements of President Obama's health reform legislation take effect, including those that prevent insurance companies from dropping coverage after someone gets sick, allow young adults to stay on their parents' policies until they are 26, and eliminate lifetime caps on benefits. The Republican pledge calls for a repeal of health care reform and replacing it with a patchwork plan that would do little if anything to reduce the number of uninsured. The GOP would include some of the goodies in the Obama plan, such as preventing people from being denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, but not the elements that make those benefits possible, such as the requirement that all Americans have health insurance — which, back in the 1990s, was a Republican idea. (Without that requirement, people would have no incentive to get coverage until they're sick, destroying the whole concept of insurance.)

In a nod to the tea party concern that Congress is acting well beyond the powers the Founding Fathers intended to give it, the pledge calls for requiring legislators to cite the specific section of the Constitution that authorizes any given action. This is pretty meaningless. Just because a congressman says a bill falls under the authority of the Commerce Clause doesn't make it so. In fairness, some of the other ideas the Republicans have for reforming congressional operations are good, at least in theory, and address issues of the day in much the same way the original contract did in 1994. The Republicans are proposing to post bills online three days before they're voted on, to allow debate and votes on amendments to cut spending from either party, and to end the practice of attaching unrelated pieces of legislation to "must-pass" bills.

The fact that it took months of debate within the Republican caucus about whether to advance even so milquetoast a proposal is telling. In 1994, more than 100 congressional Republicans and candidates signed the "Contract with America" in a rally on the Capitol steps. Today, the "Pledge to America" was given a soft rollout at a hardware store in Virginia, and there is no push to have candidates sign on. The Washington Post reported today that House Minority Leader John Boehner and his lieutenants concluded that they needed to prove they were ready to govern and would adopt an "80-20" approach to the election — meaning, the campaign would be 80 percent about criticizing Mr. Obama and the Democrats and 20 percent about telling voters what they would do if they win.

Say what you will about the Gingrich revolution, but the Republicans elected in 1994 came to Washington with a mission. The current crop of Republicans may be just as successful in capitalizing on voters' anger, but the "Pledge to America," wordy as it is, does little to transform the "Party of No" into the "Party of Ideas."

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