The Historical Significance of the Contract With America
Big Government was consolidated in America in the First Hundred Days of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By promising that the House would enact the Contract With America in the First Hundred Days of the 104th Congress, Speaker Newt Gingrich deliberately invited the history books to compare the work of the House Republican leadership with the New Deal of FDR.
Policy Review asked nine students of American politics to assess the historic significance of Gingrich's First Hundred Days, and the principal achievements and errors of the House Republican leadership during this "rendezvous with destiny."
At first glance, it seems that the House GOP's First Hundred Days compare badly with FDR's. Although all the items in the Contract With America reached the House floor, only two of them (congressional compliance and unfunded mandates) became law before the hundredth day. By contrast, FDR signed bushels of bills during the Hundred Days of 1933. His emergency banking measure went through introduction, passage, and signature on the very first day of the congressional session—and in less than eight hours.
It is unfair, however, to judge today's House Republicans by the Roosevelt standard. Crisis is the great lubricant of the legislative process, and the economic calamities of FDR's early days briefly suspended Capitol Hill's normal friction. And odd as it may sound, many aspects of public life actually moved faster in 1933 than in 1995. Take justice, for instance. Shortly before FDR took office, a man named Giuseppe Zangara fired five shots at the president-elect, missing him but killing one person and wounding four others. Zangara was tried, convicted, and executed within 33 days. In the 1990s, jury selection alone can take longer than that, and capital offenders can stay out of the electric chair for years by filing endless habeas corpus petitions.
Government has become tangled in its own red tape—which is precisely why the Republicans put so much emphasis on procedural reform. They started with the House itself, recognizing that the institution would work more efficiently with fewer committees and smaller staffs. The best symbol of their commitment to renewing Congress came with the congressional-compliance bill, which cleared both chambers faster than any peacetime domestic legislation since Roosevelt's banking bill in 1933. In other ways, the Republicans strove to make government leaner and less cumbersome. Proposals such as block grants would eliminate layers of bureaucracy and miles of red tape. And the GOP crime bill would restore rationality to the appeals process in capital cases, thereby ensuring swift justice for the Zangaras of the future.
House Republicans are pushing the federal government to match the pace of 62 years ago. Ironically, that is high praise.
The First Hundred Days of the new House Republican leaders will deserve that well-worn adjective "historic" even if relatively few of the measures listed in their Contract With America ever become law in a form they would recognize. For the central achievement of the First Hundred Days was to change the whole terrain and direction of American politics.
Last year, the most that could be conceived, let alone hoped for, in the field of tax reform was a modest reduction in the rate of income taxation. Today—whether or not major changes occur in the first session of the 104th Congress—the serious talk among congressional leaders is about imposing a flat tax, or even tearing up the tax code by the roots and replacing the income tax with a broad-based tax on consumption.
Similarly, "welfare reform" in 1994 meant, at best, doing a little nipping and tucking on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Today, the entire burden of administering most of the nation's huge welfare programs is on its way back to the 50 individual states, along with block grants to finance it.
And so it went, in one field after another, from unfunded mandates to the line-item veto; this new House of Representatives has dared to think and act in ways that have simply transformed the paradigms of American politics. It remains true that "politics is the art of the possible," but a huge number of new possibilities has opened up.
Whether the First Hundred Days of this House will ultimately deserve comparison to the First Hundred Days of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency depends upon how successful the Republicans are in setting their initiatives in concrete, as the New Dealers managed to set theirs. At this writing, and probably for several years to come, it is simply too early to tell. Much depends on how the voters react in November 1996, when they will, with their votes, make their first and perhaps most important comment on the Republican performance. Almost as crucial, however, will be the way in which future Republican presidents and Congresses follow up on the achievements of the 104th.
Any major mistakes? Yes, one: The failure to anticipate and prepare for the Democrats' counterattack, based on the tired old charge that Republicans want to starve America's children and stuff the money into the pockets of the rich. Don't be fooled by the sheer implausibility of such an accusation—a big enough lie will be believed, by a small but often crucial percentage of the voters, if it isn't nailed promptly and repeatedly by spokesmen whom the media cannot ignore. (Note how disastrously the Bush administration let the liberals rewrite the whole history of the 1980s.) We may yet pay dearly for the Republican party's sloth in this regard.
The House Republican Leadership did most of what it said it would do in the Contract With America. The result was a remarkable legislative flurry that largely fulfilled the campaign promises that so many Republicans made during the 1994 elections.
How do we compare this Republican onslaught in 1995 with FDR's First Hundred Days in 1933? Both were years of high legislative intensity; both years are likely to be described later as landmarks in 20th-century political history. And, in both years, the discussion of ideas dominated the media.
The differences between the two events are more interesting, and in some cases more subtle. Obviously, the Republicans were critical of Big Government and skeptical of the idea that man can improve his condition through central planning. The Republicans had zeal, but no faith in the perfectibility of man. By contrast, FDR's New Deal promoted the idea that government could solve economic problems—that individual liberty had to be sacrificed and power centralized in Washington to attack the Great Depression. FDR's spirits were high because he believed man to be capable of pulling the levers and turning the wheels to effectively control America's destiny.
Another difference is often overlooked. The Republican Contract was a conscious, thoughtful, and usually coherent plan that went from campaign document to legislative writ. The New Deal was improvisational and contradictory right from the start. During the 1932 campaign, for example, FDR denounced Hoover for his "reckless spending" and budget deficits. The New Deal to come was never outlined. But in Roosevelt's First Hundred Days, he reversed himself. In just three months, he pushed and signed bills that authorized government to spend almost as much as Hoover did in his entire presidency. FDR wanted a government program for each constituency: AAA for farmers, FERA for the unemployed, TVA for the South, CCC for the young, and so on.
His First Hundred Days were crucial because they shattered the notion that government worked best when it was limited. Government became a Mecca for interest groups that wanted to secure benefits from Washington, so much so that FDR, after his First Hundred Days, could not control the claimants. Cities flooded Congress with requests for road-building money; veterans won cash bonuses for past service; the silver lobby wangled from Washington more subsidy money than even the farmers could manage. American politics had crossed a threshold.
The Republican Contract is a response to the rise of this welfare state and to the twofold protest that the New Deal/Great Society programs mostly haven't worked, and taxes to pay for them are too high. These two points are addressed in part by the Balanced Budget Amendment. If it had included Congressman Dick Armey's flat-tax proposal—instead of seeking to manipulate the current system of tax deductions—the Contract could have challenged the New Deal more effectively. Special-interest politics, as Roosevelt learned, needs to extract money from some groups in order to support others. A progressive income tax is indispensable to a growing welfare state. In office, FDR soon hiked the top marginal tax rate to 79 percent; later he pushed it to 90 percent. A flat tax, by contrast, forces supporters of new government programs (and old ones, for that matter) to admit they will tax all to benefit a few. That admission alone might lead many to rethink the strong role of government in American society.
Of course it wasn't the same as those Hundred Days. In March 1933, when FDR got Congress to enact a slew of government-aggrandizing laws—thus triggering the New Deal that vastly expanded Washington's control—17 million citizens had lost their jobs, 5,000 banks had collapsed, and the nation was mired in the most frightening depression in its history. Amid mass desperation, a Democratic president with a fresh mandate was able to get a Democratic Congress to more or less pass anything he wanted.
The national mood in January 1995, by contrast, was nowhere near as frantic. When Speaker Gingrich and the House Republicans uncorked their political revolution, they benefited from none of the panic-driven momentum that the Depression had lent Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats 62 years earlier. Instead, they faced an enemy in the White House, a largely hostile press corps, a $1.6 trillion federal establishment more likely to munch ground glass than relinquish power without a death-struggle, and a Senate led by Bob Dole. So, no, in terms of legislation completed, Gingrich's First Hundred Days don't compare with FDR's. But measured against other yardsticks, the House Republicans' quick-march through the Contract With America was even more significant.
The customary formula of federal politics is: The president proposes, Congress disposes. So thoroughly did Gingrich and his army upend that piece of conventional wisdom that by the end of a hundred days, Bill Clinton was reduced to insisting that he still mattered. "The president," he sniffled in a mid-April press conference, "is relevant here."
The Republicans upended another piece of conventional wisdom: that platforms—i.e., ideas—don't win or lose elections. The life cycles of modern party platforms are familiar. Party members meet. They brawl over a couple of planks. They vote for a platform everyone can live with. Then they print a few copies nobody will ever read or care about.
In 1994, GOP House candidates followed a completely different path. They gathered to sign a brief "contract" whose details weren't yet drafted, but whose main promise—drastically reduced federal power—was crystal-clear. The pundits promptly consigned it to oblivion. Tens of millions of copies appeared in print. And an intense ideological campaign was then waged between the party that wrote the Contract and the party that reviled it.
Never in modern U.S. politics has a party platform—a party's statement of principles—mattered more. Two years ago, they lost a White House they had virtually owned because their incumbent didn't grasp the power of "the vision thing"; in November, Republicans conquered a Congress thought to be permanently closed to them precisely because they did.
Or did they?
Right after the GOP won its astonishing victory, Gingrich articulated his Prime Directive: "Cooperate, yes. Compromise, no." Right after that, the compromising began.
The provision for a three-fifths supermajority to approve tax increases was dropped from the Balanced Budget Amendment. The national-security bill was stripped of missile defense. The unfunded-mandates bill repealed precisely zero unfunded federal mandates. The GOP's crime bill wound up with the same price tag as the supposedly "pork-filled" Democratic version of last year. The bloated food-stamp program was exempted from welfare reform. Term limits were croaked.
The Clinton tax increases that Republicans had unanimously opposed in 1993 were left virtually intact. Republicans talked of "zeroing out" government subsidies for the arts and public broadcasting—until Garth Brooks came by to lobby, and the talk dried up. The House passed a legal-reform bill that federalized great swaths of tort law. Enthusiasm for eliminating entire Cabinet departments was limited to feisty freshmen with no clout and conservative think tanks with no vote. And to mark the completion of the First Hundred Days, Gingrich declared in a television address that his party was certainly not proposing to actually shrink the federal budget.
In its First Hundred Days, the new GOP House majority ignited the conservative revolution it had been elected to achieve. Without question, it has changed the terms of debate on the Hill. But before their sprint through the Contract was done, the Republicans were once again showing the symptoms that had always doomed them in the past: weak knees and thin skin.
Speaker Gingrich and his lieutenants fulfilled to the letter the Contract with America pledge that ten important issues would be taken to a vote in the House. Observers must be impressed, moreover, by the GOP's passage of nine of these, and by the party's ability to round up four-fifths of its members for the failed term-limits constitutional amendment. The new House leadership has established a remarkable working model of a disciplined, responsible party motivated by deeply-felt principles—on one side of Capitol Hill.
And when one looks for long-term significance, there's the rub. As of this writing, the Balanced Budget Amendment has already failed in the Senate, which is widely expected to reject or drastically modify other Contract items. In addition, President Clinton may muster the courage, conviction, or pragmatic judgment to wield a veto or two. What comes out of the Senate and White House legislative sausage-grinders will likely strike Contract devotees as inferior bratwurst rather than fine tenderloin. No, this will not be as significant as FDR's First Hundred Days.
What major mistakes did the Republicans make? Clearly they still need to work on what George Bush might have called "the message thing." Admittedly, it is no easy task to get a conservative perspective past the filter of a predominantly liberal-leaning national media, but it can be done. The leadership was blindsided on the school-lunch issue, although the Democratic tactics were predictable. Thanks to Henry Hyde's impassioned defense of political careerism, network television played the term-limits debate as primarily an argument among Republicans rather than one between Republicans and Democrats. In the absence of a Jack Kemp able to explain in appealing terms the importance of preferences for capital gains and savings, the Democrats appear to have achieved an advantage on the tax-equity issue. Finally, the Speaker, for all his intramural leadership skills, oscillates wildly between flashes of brilliance and egregious gaffes. As a result, he enjoys less public esteem than he deserves.
At the end of the hundred days, the Republicans remain locked in a continuing struggle with the Democrats for the soul of an angry, alienated "populistic" segment of the electorate—similar to the swing constituency once called "Middle America" and these days attracted to Ross Perot. The GOP can prevail when it convincingly depicts the Democrats as the party of the special interests (affirmative-action beneficiaries, welfare bureaucrats, etc.), but the issue can be used by the Democrats when they depict the Republicans as advocates of tax breaks for "the rich" or abusers of mothers and children. The argument remains unsettled; the Republicans need to do a much better job of articulating their side of it.
Corrosively cynical, this populistic electorate seems to see only business as usual in Washington and is unlikely to give the Republicans much credit for an imperfectly fulfilled Contract. It also still appears prone to believe the budget can be balanced simply by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse while leaving entitlements and pork untouched. It remains uncertain whether this group, or America at large, is prepared for the consequences of a smaller federal establishment: greater local and individual self-reliance.
One last thought: If conservatives want to be successful, they had better stop depicting themselves as involved in a sweeping effort to uproot the New Deal. Speaker Gingrich (perhaps consciously drawing on the example of Ronald Reagan) was right on target in professing admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt and at least some of his accomplishments. The Republicans were elected to reverse the lingering excesses of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, not to take us back to the world of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
There are advantages as well as disadvantages to speed.
The First Hundred Days of the Republican majority were like a laser show—full of color and sound, but so fast and furious that it was difficult for voters to single out the constituent parts.
The Contract gave shape to the first months of Republican dominance on Capitol Hill, which might otherwise have been characterized by fits and starts. Though designed primarily as a vote-getter, the Contract also served extremely well to enforce party discipline. Everyone understood the promise, everyone was committed to the schedule, and factiousness among Republicans was kept to a minimum.
That was the advantage of speed. The disadvantage is that the individual terms of the Contract, many of which deserved a greater hearing, more explanation, and more time before the public, were given short shrift. Few Americans really understand the benefits of tort reform, welfare reform, or regulatory reform.
In a bravura performance over the First Hundred Days, the Republicans made only two errors. The first was the excessive attention to the question of whether or not to punish Senator Mark Hatfield for his vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment. In so doing, Republicans themselves (without help from the media) made Hatfield and, accordingly, internecine Republican quarrels, the story of the BBA's failure. In fact, the story ought to have been the six Democrats who switched their votes and defeated a bill they had supported only months before. Hatfield is a liberal Republican. He voted his conscience. Punishment would have been futile. Besides, his breed is dying out. He does not represent the future of the GOP. Effort spent trying to "fix" him would be better directed elsewhere.
The other error was the failure to anticipate the reaction among liberals (especially in the press) to changes in the school-lunch program. Of course the liberals were dishonest, unscrupulous, and brazen in their depiction of the terms of debate ("starving children" indeed!), but it is the job of conservatives in America to prepare for that pitch and knock it out of the park. Ronald Reagan knew that Jimmy Carter was going to portray him as a mad bomber in the 1980 presidential debates, and he was ready with a riposte: "There you go again." But Republicans were caught flat-footed when Democrats accused them of trying to take food from the mouths of babes.
Still, only two mistakes in three months is an enviable record. I wish I could match it.
While the fulfillment of the House Republicans' Contract With America in just 92 days is largely worth rejoicing, this momentous occasion also illustrates how Americans have "defined democracy down" through the years. The House's single-minded passage of the Contract's provisions (with the unfortunate and sloppily-handled exception of term limits) was an exhilarating interval in recent political history. Still, the balloons and streamers flew over the U.S. Capitol after the Contract's completion precisely because the House GOP accomplished what Americans should normally expect of their representatives: They engaged them with ideas. They pledged to vote on them, then did so, as promised.
Although this sort of innovation and accountability should be routine, they instead are refreshing departures from the recent national campaigns that have enflamed public cynicism. George Bush's abandoned "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge and Bill Clinton's phantom "middle-class tax cut" illustrate this problem. The Contract's greatest legacy may be that it reversed the rising tide of antagonism that had severely eroded Washington's goodwill with the American public. Now that House Republicans have actually kept their word on the Contract, Congress today enjoys its highest approval rating in years.
Assuming the Senate and President Clinton cooperate, the enactment of most Contract items, per se, will not influence American politics as profoundly as did FDR in his First Hundred Days. However, the paradigm shift that has accompanied the Contract likely will parallel the new thinking that FDR inspired 62 years ago. The Contract and the GOP's takeover of Congress have led Washington to discuss seriously the abolition of the income tax, the closing of at least four Cabinet departments, and a balanced budget by 2002. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt has now embraced tax simplification, while Bill Clinton has placed federal affirmative-action policies under a microscope. These realities would have been mere hallucinations just nine months ago. By committing themselves to a coherent "vision thing," today's GOP has moved the entire plate of acceptable discourse tectonically to the right.
Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies, however, stumbled badly on the so-called "school-lunch" issue. Democrats stereotypically pummel GOP budget cuts and block grants with dusty rhetoric about "starving babies" and "at-risk infants." Republicans should have anticipated these attacks after seeing them haunt Ronald Reagan and George Bush for 12 years. Opening with a salvo against corporate welfare—such as having Archer-Daniels-Midland tycoon Dwayne Andreas explain to a subcommittee why his multi-billion-dollar agroempire deserves federal subsidies—would have blunted Democratic charges about GOP "greed" and "meanness." So would have energetic reminders that vibrant economic growth especially lifts the poor and unemployed.
The Contract also failed to address the coming entitlements meltdown. While Speaker Gingrich insists it is "off the table," Social Security, as well as Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits and other give-away programs, jeopardize America's future financial well-being. While a promise to vote on affluence-testing or privatization of these programs would have made the Contract far more controversial, it also would have shown the GOP exhibiting genuine courage. Now, without a mandate to do so, the Republican-led 104th Congress must show even greater bravery by confronting entitlements (try balancing the budget without doing so). Or, it simply can stand back and watch Social Security and Medicare eat us alive.
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the new Republican House leadership deserve thanks and congratulations for the successful completion of the Contract With America. What a revolutionary (or more correctly, counterrevolutionary) series of events has taken place! With the Contract, a promise to the American people was made; in a little less than the promised hundred days, the promise was kept. Of what other Congress in this century can that be said?
Certainly some needed changes were made to vexing and intolerable House rules; for the first time, national laws passed by Congress will apply to the House as well as ordinary Americans. Having to live by the rules made for the rest of us cannot but raise the consciousness of the rulemakers and dissuade them from their excesses.
Certainly some important legislation was passed by the House in those historic hundred days. Congress agreed to stop imposing mandates on state and local jurisdictions without paying the bill; such progress was nearly undreamt of in our philosophy just a few months before the Contract was unveiled. Is this important? Indeed it is. Is it enough? Perhaps not. Our liberties have already been eroding for decades; what's worse, the cost of the erosion has been passed down the line. Far better for Congress to forswear dreaming up silly rules to begin with; agreeing to pay their cost only solves half the problem. But let us not quibble with progress in the right direction. The looming struggle to actually cut federal spending by billions of dollars may preclude any more erosions.
Congratulations are also deserved for passing a tax cut and for stepping forth on welfare reform. Has the American public forgotten the promises made by then-Governor Bill Clinton when he campaigned for president? A middle-class tax cut? The end of welfare as we know it? The new House leadership promised both, and they, not Clinton, kept the promise.
But a word of caution on the welfare-reform proposals: Just as limited congratulations are due for eliminating unfunded mandates, limited caution is due for proposing to send money to the states in the form of block grants with no strings attached. This will create, as someone has noted, "funded unmandates."
For those of us in California, this is an interesting exercise in neofederalism—a tasty bit of proper philosophy, or revolutionary devolution, if you will. The warning is this: The California legislature, perhaps more than any other state legislature, has suffered from Congress-envy for at least the last three decades. If California legislators suddenly find billions of dollars dropped in their allegedly bare general-fund cupboard, what mischief might they do? Conservatives and libertarians alike want major programs such as welfare brought closer to us, closer to our scrutiny, closer to our effective control. Will we get what we want, or will we get a more fearsome monster than the current federal system? In this case, sense may have been sacrificed for speed; again, the federal government would do far better to reduce taxes, forswearing the revenue, than collecting and then returning the money in skewed proportions.
All in all, hearty congratulations to the House Republican leadership! Promises made, promises kept—who could ask for more? At least, who could ask for more in the First Hundred Days? May the next five hundred days go as well! Legislators keeping promises—it might catch on.
The Contract With America committed the House Republicans to raising and voting on each of the Contract items. This was accomplished and should be considered a major shift from politics as usual.
One major frustration that Americans have expressed in recent years is that they vote for change but get only lip service from political leaders. The significance in the Contract With America is that a group of politicians did what they said they would. The Contract raises the level of political debate to one of performance and effectiveness, rather than distortion, political expediency, and misrepresentation by political officials, candidates, and parties.
The greatness of these hundred days is that they changed the political process. The substantive change is yet to be determined. It is still too early to tell whether the policies passed by the House in the First Hundred Days will become law, and if so, what effect they will ultimately have on American life and culture.
Even now, however, we can see a shifting of attitude among the American people. Inherent in the policy and legislative changes proposed in the Republicans' First Hundred Days are the notions of individual responsibility and accountability for one's actions. Government appears to be seen as a catalyst and facilitator for change, but not the ultimate determinant of the individual lives of our citizens.
Major mistakes during the First Hundred Days include the failure to support term limits as forcefully as other elements of the Contract. The leadership vacillated and approached this issue tentatively. They should have committed firmly to this issue, which was approved in all of the 22 states where it was considered by the voters.
The leadership allowed the debate to deteriorate into "them vs. us" on issues such as the school-lunch program and the group-home concept for unwed teenage mothers without stable homes of their own. The leadership allowed these ideas and "those conservative Republicans" supporting them to be portrayed as insensitive or callous. They should instead have placed the true nature of these issues at the center of the debate.