Is a new Contract With America the path to power?
This column isn’t a review of Dr. Frank Luntz’ Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear But it does draw heavily on what Dr. Luntz learned during the research behind the actual writing of the 1994 Contract With America that helped Republicans become, after 40 years of Democrat rule, the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Contract With America was a remarkable document. Never before had a political party told voters: If you’ll put us in the majority, we will carry out 10 specific tasks.
Prior to the 1994 mid-term elections, the Contract was printed in TV Guide as a pull-out section designed to be pasted onto refrigerator doors with a checklist down the left margin so voters could track the Contract’s progress or lack of progress over the first 100 legislative days of the new Congress.
The original draft of the Contract carried this breathtaking promise: “If we break this contract, we will not seek re-election. We mean it.” That was too breathtaking for some of the 110 GOP House members and, the last minute, it was dropped. But 108 out of 110 GOP congresspersons signed their names to the final document.
They might as well have included the dropped re-election pledge because, in 2006, the voters put the Republicans back into the minority. Not because the electorate didn’t like the Contract, but mainly because not enough of the Contract’s provisions were enacted into law.
Despite slurs by the Sinistra Media calling it the Contract On America, its contents were the product of thousands of telephone surveys and dozens of focus groups asking Americans what they wanted Congress to be doing. In essence, the Contract was written by work-a-day Americans who told the interviewers their top two priorities were a balanced budget and term limits.
Apart from the Contract elements derived from telephone surveys and focus groups, other Contract elements may not have occurred to the average voter. For example, the Republicans pledged an end to proxy voting in committee by House members. Who knew? Or, who knew that laws that applied to the rest of the country often did not apply equally to Congress itself? The Contract corrected that.
The other provisions of the Contract included: a balanced-budget, the line-item veto, an anti-crime package, a bill to discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy, legislation to strengthen families, a $1,000 (per family of four) tax-credit, a bill to boost the military, a bill to raise the social security earnings limit, a jobs creation act, a bill to reign in ambulance chasing lawyers, and a first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.
With the Clintons in the White House and the Senate under Democrat control, the balanced-budget element went nowhere. Moreover, the Courts ruled that only the States could determine the terms of those elected to Congress and that the line-item veto violated the “separation of powers.”
Even so, during the early days and years of the GOP return to power, some, but not all, of the Contract’s 10 elements became law. While the Contract wasn’t perfect, it was, in many ways, like Babe Ruth pointing up into the stands and telling the crowd that’s where I’m going to hit this next pitch. And, he did. But, by the mid-term elections of 2006, the Republicans had fanned too many pitches.
Even so, the Contract teaches valuable lessons: Listen closely to the people, and then carry out their desires. Too bad the Contract didn’t pledge: no more ear-marking, no more pork, no more lobbyist-paid favors and avoid even the appearance of evil.
While the disappointingly slow and costly pace of the conflict in Iraq played a role in 2006, the failure of the GOP to offer a renewed Contract With America, along with the ethical failures of some congresspersons (of both parties), caused the electorate to say: “Strike three. You’re out!”
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer and philosopher,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2007. William Hamilton.