All year long, conservatives have been pressuring Republicans to release a Contract with America for 2010 — an updated version of the campaign platform that the party unveiled before its 1994 sweep of Congress. Thursday morning, Republican congressmen are responding to that pressure by making a “Pledge to America.” The inevitable question will be: Is the pledge as bold as the Contract?
The answer is: The pledge is bolder. The Contract with America merely promised to hold votes on popular bills that had been bottled up during decades of Democratic control of the House. The pledge commits Republicans to working toward a broad conservative agenda that, if implemented, would make the federal government significantly smaller, Congress more accountable, and America more prosperous.
The pledge divides its policy commitments into five parts. The first concerns jobs. The Republicans promise to stop tax increases, to require congressional approval of regulations with a large economic impact, and to give small businesses a tax deduction. To our minds, this section of the pledge is the least impressive. The first two policies would merely prevent government from destroying jobs, and the rationale for the third is elusive. (We like small businesses, but other companies generate jobs, too.) Still, these are better economic policies than we are getting from the administration or the current congressional leadership.
The longer-range policies are more compelling. The second section of the pledge promises budget restraint. Domestic discretionary spending would be cut back to “pre-bailout, pre-stimulus” levels, and then its growth would be capped — generating hundreds of billions in savings. The legislative budget, which has grown unjustifiably in recent years, would also be pruned back: Republicans know they cannot cut spending elsewhere if they will not cut spending on themselves. TARP would be ended, as would the federal entanglement with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A federal hiring freeze would be instituted. And Congress would make “a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.” If that means putting their long-term unfunded liabilities on budget, it would be an important first step toward reform.
Third comes health care, where the Republicans say they “will immediately take action to repeal” Obamacare. They also plan to work toward their own health-care reforms, including medical-malpractice reform, freedom to buy health insurance across state lines, and better-funded high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions. They also promise to enact a law banning federal funding of abortion. That would strengthen the existing Hyde amendment, which applies only to a portion of federal spending and has to be renewed every year. (Here, too, the pledge goes beyond the Contract, which steered clear of all “social issues.”)
Republicans, wisely, have responded to public dismay at congressional dysfunction by including a group of reforms to legislative practice. Bill language would have to be available online for 72 hours. All legislation would have to include a citation of its constitutional justification. Spending bills would have to be open to amendment: Programs that cannot get majority support on their own will thus no longer be able to ride along with popular items.
Finally, the Republicans turn to national security. The congressional role in this area is limited, but Republicans plan to do what they can with clean troop-funding bills, support for military courts where appropriate, funds for missile defense, and sanctions on Iran. They would pass a law explicitly making room for a robust state-and-local role in helping to enforce the immigration laws.
The rhetoric accompanying the pledge is also mostly praiseworthy. The pledgemakers note that federal spending has grown too much “over the last decade”: There is no pretense that this problem began with President Obama, or even Speaker Pelosi. They attempt to ground their policy proposals in “the permanent truths of our founding.” They express an appropriate humility both about the role of Washington, D.C., in relation to the rest of the country and about their ability to bring about the necessary changes quickly.
There are, of course, things we would prefer the Republicans to do differently. In some areas the pledge includes misguided policies, in others the Republicans could have been bolder, and in still others we need more details to evaluate it. But the pledge is explicitly a beginning to the lengthy task of providing conservative governance, and a very good one.
It is also a shrewd political document. Do the Democrats really wish to campaign on the proposition that bills should not be available for public inspection and should not have to cite their constitutional authority? That Social Security and Medicare should not be fully accounted for? That TARP should be continued indefinitely? Republicans looking to the elections should hope so.