An organization called the Tea Party Patriots, comprising a number of conservative grassroots groups, has unveiled a list of 20 possible items for inclusion in a new “Contract from America,” and is urging people to visit its web site and vote for their top ten. The list is distinct from another effort to define what conservatives should stand for going into the 2010 elections: the Mount Vernon Statement. Contract from America, like its namesake, 1994’s Contract with America, mentions specifics, whereas the Mount Vernon Statement limits itself to broad principles.
Both of these efforts are distinct from an official GOP effort to draft a positive agenda statement for the 2010 races, an effort that Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California is heading up. McCarthy’s process is still in its infancy, and he says he’s not sure whether the final product will look more like the Contract from America, with its list of specific policy proposals, or the Mount Vernon Statement, with its broader focus, but he stresses that the process he has in mind would take both into account.
The problem with specific policy proposals is getting sufficiently broad agreement within the Republican party while still actually standing for something. The Tea Party Patriots present a mixed bag — some proposals that shouldn’t have trouble attracting broad support, some that might be more divisive, and some that could attract all the theoretical support in the world and still not come to pass.
In this last group we find items such as an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced budget and a two-thirds majority of Congress to increase taxes. There should be broad agreement among conservatives anyway that runaway deficits pose a big problem and that tax hikes are not the appropriate remedy. However, even the audacious budget plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), which would replace fee-for-service Medicare with vouchers and Social Security with private accounts, wouldn’t balance the budget for decades.
The aforementioned core of Ryan’s plan — allowing Americans to opt out of Medicare and Social Security — is also among the Tea Party Patriots’ proposals, but probably falls into the “too divisive” camp. Leading Republicans have actively fought the perception that Ryan’s plan is the GOP’s plan, partly due to bad memories of Pres. George W. Bush’s push for personal accounts. These proposals will probably be left out of any final Republican document, even though it is hard to imagine any other solution to the looming entitlement crisis that does not involve large tax hikes.
I would prefer to see bold specifics from the Republicans this year, but I do not want to appear naïve — their list will probably end up looking much different from my ideal, and that of the average tea partier. And it’s not the Tea Party Patriots’ job to maximize the political attractiveness of their Contract. Nevertheless, these are the items from their list that might make it into the GOP’s Contract if it were to focus on what’s both most appealing and most plausible:
1. Permanently repealing all tax hikes scheduled to begin in 2011. Locks in the Bush tax cuts, but more important, provides stability for businesses and removes some of the regulatory/tax uncertainty that has contributed to weak job growth.
2. Requiring every bill in Congress to be made public seven days before any vote can be taken. This isn’t an original idea, but it has the added benefit of serving as a reminder that Obama made a similar promise and broke it.
3. Broadcasting all non-security meetings and votes on C-SPAN and the Internet. Ditto.
4. Placing a moratorium on all earmarks until the process is fully transparent. John Boehner says that, if elected speaker, he would run the House “differently than it’s been run in the past under Democrats or Republicans” — referring to the bad old days of GOP fiscal incontinence, when earmarked spending exploded. Earmarks, while relatively inconsequential relative to the size of the budget, tend to grease the skids on large spending bills, and the process of earmarking legislation ought to be made more transparent, with lawmakers’ names attached to the earmarks they request.
5. Allowing the purchase of health-insurance plans across state lines, to increase competition and make the market more efficienct. As Tevi Troy and Jeffrey Anderson have explained, a series of small pragmatic steps toward lower premiums will look attractive compared with Obama’s overreaching and unaffordable goal of universal/mandatory coverage.
6. Authorizing the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on energy sources from unstable countries, and reducing regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation. The administration quietly undid the GOP’s late-2008 victory on drilling as one of its first official acts. Energy prices, on the rise again, could make drilling a winning issue in 2010.
7. Preventing the EPA from implementing costly new regulations. This item should draw attention to the fact that, even though cap-and-trade appears to be DOA in the Senate, a wrongheaded Supreme Court decision has given the EPA the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions if they deem them a threat to human health. GOP candidates could remind voters that a Republican majority would serve as a check on the administration’s green extremism.
8. Preventing any regulation or tax on the Internet; and
9. Prohibiting the Federal Communications Commission from using funds to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Both of these measures play into a broader free-speech agenda that the tea partiers have adopted. Their potential inclusion has drawn criticism from conservatives on the grounds that America faces bigger problems, but they are both less divisive and more achievable than most solutions to the bigger problems — that’s why those particular problems have gotten so big.
10. Making sure the federal government does not bail out private companies, and that it immediately divests itself of its stake in the companies it acquired in recent bailouts: Unwinding the bailouts — and putting the right measures in place to prevent future ones — is crucial to attracting independents and small-government conservatives. Figuring out how to end the era of “too big to fail” will be a difficult challenge, but promising “No more bailouts” is a good first step.
The biggest problem with my list is that it does not address America’s large and growing debt. But other than the proposal to adopt something similar to the Ryan plan, I don’t see anything among the options that is specific enough to be credible. For instance, in the absence of specifics, something like Impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of the inflation rate and the rate of population growth savors of Obama’s “spending freeze,” which conservatives rightly criticized as ineffectual.
As Ramesh Ponnuru recently wrote, any new Contract that “omits mention of the debt or fights it with platitudes will enrage the tea-party movement.” This is the biggest challenge facing 2010’s Contractors, and the debate over whether to embrace Ryan’s plan demonstrates that there aren’t any easy answers.
— Stephen Spruiell is a staff reporter for National Review Online.