Carl Leubsdorf: GOP pledges could prove easier than results

Sixteen years ago, House Republicans fueled their long-shot campaign to overthrow 40 years of Democratic control with a detailed platform, the "Contract With America." The campaign succeeded. But most of the platform never became law.

Now, tea party activists and prominent Republicans like former Speaker Newt Gingrich are pushing a new Contract for America, with similar proposals, but GOP leaders are split. Some prefer a more general agenda, rather than specific pledges.

Judging from what happened after 1994, a general agenda may be wiser. House GOP leaders fulfilled their promise to bring the proposals to a vote and made some internal reforms. However, most died in the GOP-controlled Senate, and some were blocked by President Bill Clinton, though revised versions of their tax and welfare proposals were later adopted in bipartisan measures.

Since Barack Obama will be in the White House for at least two more years and the odds don't favor a GOP Senate, Republicans would have only a slim chance of enacting sweeping legislation if they won House control in November.

And dramatic proposals to reform taxes and entitlements could enable Democrats to put GOP lawmakers on the defensive, both for the proposals and when they don't pass. Since midterm elections generally serve as presidential referendums, Republicans might do better with a more general pledge to counter alleged Obama excesses.


Still, the idea of a dramatic policy agenda appeals to the tea party activists whose enthusiasm Republicans hope to enlist. That's true despite substantial doubt that the original contract had much influence in the 1994 GOP victory.

Pre- and post-election polls showed that only about three in 10 voters in 1994 had even heard of the contract and that the major factor was dissatisfaction with Clinton, which limited Democratic turnout and spurred Republicans.

Similar factors, plus persistently high unemployment, are likely to be key factors this fall.

GOP leaders who favor a detailed agenda say Republicans should show voters they stand for something beyond opposing Obama. But getting incumbent and challenger candidates to agree on specific measures might prove difficult.

Consider the recent health reform law that has been a focal point of GOP opposition. A proposed agenda from tea party patriots urges candidates to pledge that they will vote to "defund, repeal and replace" the law with one that "actually makes health care and insurance more affordable by enabling a competitive, open and transparent free-market health care and health insurance system that isn't restricted by state boundaries."

That might sound appealing, but it almost certainly won't happen next year. And it could allow Democrats in competitive districts to accuse Republicans of trying to kill such popular provisions as requiring insurance companies to cover children with pre-existing conditions.

Another item calls on candidates to "permanently repeal all tax hikes, including those to the income, capital gains and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011." Other probably unworkable proposals would cap the annual growth in spending and adopt "a simple and fair single-rate tax system" by replacing the current code with one no longer than the 4,543 words in the original Constitution.

Another proposal would "begin the constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds' majority needed for any tax hike."


That's similar to a 1994 pledge for amendment requiring a balanced budget unless sanctioned by three-fifths' votes in both houses. That passed the House but failed in the Senate. An accompanying measure to allow the president to veto individual budget items passed, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

Looking toward November, House GOP whip Eric Cantor says his party "will have a list of deliverables," proposals they can pass if they win House control. Such promises are usually easier to make than to deliver.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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