GOP 'Pledge to America' Looks Unlikely to Inspire

GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner. Tim Sloan / AFP-Getty Image

Legend has it that the 1994 Republican "Contract With America" was the centerpiece of the GOP's historic congressional takeover. The reality is a little more complicated. A generational shift of the Democrats' Solid South toward Republicans culminated in 1994 for a number of reasons, among them the usual antipathy toward the president's party in a midterm election. Republicans were well on their way to a rout by the time the contract had been written. And, of course, much of what the contract promised never came to pass. Such is the nature of our separation of powers when there is a president in the opposition party and a virtual supermajority requirement to pass anything in the Senate. But in the world of political analysis, actually accomplishing policy goals is an entirely separate question from whether something is viewed as politically successful. By that measure the contract is considered, perhaps excessively so, as a smashing success.

So, with that in mind, what should voters make of the GOP "Pledge to America" that will be unveiled Thursday? Whereas the contract was mostly procedural, promising such changes as requiring a three-fifths majority to raise taxes, the pledge offers more policy specifics. Some of them, such as an intention to keep the Guantánamo Bay detention facility open, are a bit overly specific and odd. Guantánamo is regarded by experts across the political spectrum as an imperfect solution to the vexing problem of where to keep suspected foreign terrorists. One would hope that keeping people who have been never been convicted of a crime in permanent legal limbo is not something that Republicans, much less swing voters, are actually enthusiastic about.

Other proposals follow the contract playbook by calling for changes to the legislative process so as to rein in government. For instance, Politico notes, "In one standout procedural promise that could prove difficult to keep, Republicans say they will let any lawmaker offer an amendment to a bill that would cut spending." This is just harmless theatrics. Not so harmless, however, is the promise to require every bill to be certified as constitutional before it is voted on. We have a mechanism for assessing the constitutionality of legislation, which is the independent judiciary. An extraconstitutional attempt to limit the powers of Congress is dangerous even as a mere suggestion, and it constitutes an encroachment on the judiciary.

The biggest question is how Republicans will attempt to square the circle of calling for $4 trillion to be removed from the federal treasury in the next decade by making the Bush tax cuts permanent, adding a tax cut for small businesses on top of that, and simultaneously reducing the budget deficit while increasing funding for national missile defense. They will need to get a lot more specific—and drastic—in their budget cutting than the pledge's cap on discretionary spending. They say that will save "$100 billion in the first year alone," but that's not nearly enough to compensate for their other budget-busting plans. Conveniently, the pledge calculates how much spending cuts will save the government and how much tax cuts will save the taxpayer, but not how much their tax cuts or spending proposals will cost the government. As George W. Bush might say, that's "fuzzy Washington math."

The messiest proposal legislatively is repealing health-care reform and replacing it with the predictable grab bag of Republican health-care solutions: tort reform, health savings accounts, and buying insurance across state lines. Curiously, there is one major provision of health-care reform—prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions—in their list of proposals. Such a prohibition is economically infeasible without the individual mandate that health-care reform included. If you force insurers to accommodate those with prior conditions and not the young and healthy, premiums will go up. The pledge contains no answer to this conundrum other than a vague promise to "expand state high-risk pools, reinsurance programs and reduce the cost of coverage."

Congressional Republicans are unpopular and they are widely viewed as very much a part of the "arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites" that the pledge lambastes. That's probably why Sarah Palin's political-action committee cut a video touting the Tea Party but making no mention of the party that nominated her for vice president two years ago. While the majority of Republican congressional candidates signed on to the contract in 1994, Thursday's event will feature only a dozen Republicans, all incumbents. And some Republicans are already criticizing the pledge for not going far enough to address long-term fiscal challenges because it does not propose reductions in entitlement spending.

The bottom line is that any Republican attempt to adopt a coherent, forward-looking, and plausible platform is bound to be fraught with challenges and contradictions. Luckily for the GOP, it looks like it can win big this year without one.