AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
To the tune of Toby Keith’s song “Made in America,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy unveiled the House GOP’s Commitment to America on September 23 in blue-collar Washington, Pennsylvania. It’s a concise, one-page document, with good big-picture goals aimed at giving Americans “an economy that’s strong,” “a nation that’s safe,” “a future that’s built on freedom,” and “a government that’s accountable.”
This big-picture stuff is surely right. Four good goals to pursue. House Republicans have repeated some of the themes of past Republican successes such as Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America or Donald Trump’s 2016 Contract with the American Voter. What I and, I believe, many Republican voters really liked about the earlier documents was their concreteness. We are happy with the scope of the commitment, but nothing compares to the terms of a contract.
There is no problem with big-picture promising. The Contract with America was certainly about slowing up and decreasing spending and in general stopping the growth of government. The Trump Contract with the American Voter addressed many of the same concerns. And so too does the Commitment to America. These are very big goals. Rome was not built in a day, and FDR’s Washington can’t be trimmed in a day either. With big goals, what makes it seem as though you are not just pontificating is progress on specific actions that serve as a bridge to the place you’ve painted in your big picture. That’s where the “contract” part is important.
Contracts are promises to do specific actions in exchange for other actions. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You vote us in, we’ll have an independent audit of the House finances, and if you vote me in, I’ll make sure that for every regulation passed, two costly regulations will be scrapped. Contracts also have a time frame and thus, an urgency. The Gingrich and Trump Contracts set forth an agenda for the first one hundred days in office.
What is great about a contract with a time frame is that you can go down the line and say, as with Donald Trump’s promises to pull America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement or to renegotiate NAFTA, “Hey, he did that.” If some of the promises don’t work out fully because of Democratic obstruction, judicial interference, or other difficulties, voters will not be angry at them but at those who blocked them. If the promises aren’t kept because the pols simply didn’t try, the voters will be very angry and disillusioned. A big part of the reason the GOP has been in the wilderness for the last four years is that for all their talk about replacing Obamacare, when it came down to doing it with a Republican president—Donald Trump—willing to sign on, they couldn’t get the job done.
Setting out actual policies with specifics is what made Newt Gingrich’s and Donald Trump’s contracts so powerful electorally and what made them capable of talking about the big issues with credibility. As political writer David Winston observed on the twentieth anniversary of the Contract with America: “1994 was all about issue content and political context for candidates and voters. It gave candidates the ability to talk in national terms about bigger picture issues and gave the party consistency across districts. It also helped the party develop the financial resources to win the kind of historic victory Republicans would need to take control of the House.”
The Commitment to America is not just big picture. It has some specifics. The most exciting one is that the House will start by ending the addition of 87,000 new IRS agents. The best one is, “End special treatment for Members of Congress by repealing proxy voting. . . .” After all, one of the most popular aspects of the Gingrich plan was that it began by trying to reform Congress and included ways to make its own members subject to legislation they passed. That this is still a live concern should be obvious after all the revelations of the last decade about how members of Congress and their staffs have had special cut-outs removing them from the effects of Obamacare and other pieces of legislation.
But in the Commitment, even that line about proxy voting drifts off into things that would be great without explanation of how they would go: “. . .and increase accountability in the election process through voter ID, accurate voter rolls, and observer access.” How do you propose to do these things when elections are largely controlled at state and local levels? Is this a counterproposal aimed at the Democrats’ attempt to nationalize elections?
The same goes for the other good parts. I’m fine with “Advancing the Parents’ Bill of Right,” but how exactly is Congress going to “recover lost learning from school closures” or “expand parental choice so more than a million more students can receive the education their parents know is best”? Parental choice is something Congress could feasibly do something about, though they don’t tell us how. And how will Republicans go about the effort to “recover lost learning”?
The same goes even with some of the specific promises to do something which are not exactly inspiring. While it is no doubt important to do so, promises to hold House hearings even on topics such as the Afghanistan debacle or the origins of COVID doesn’t exactly make voters crawl over broken glass to go to the polls. Nor does the announcement of committees, even “Select Committees.”
Notwithstanding these quibbles, it’s a good thing that somebody finally convinced the House GOP to do something positive. Simply being silent while the Democrats show that they don’t have a clue or about how (or even a desire) to govern is not going to work. Nor is simply pointing that fact out. In real life you don’t get an A because somebody else has an F. That’s why I hope that the GOP will build on the solid foundation of the Commitments and in the next few weeks and months make even more specific the various legislative objectives they will pursue if they win the majority in November.
What Americans want is not only the assurance that the GOP House feels our pain about fentanyl, the border, or school choice. Nor do we simply want the announcement of hearings or committees, enforcement or fully funding, much as these might be good things. What we always want are specifics. What bills will the GOP pass? How will they hold “accountable” Soros-funded district attorneys? How will they ensure school choice? How will they secure the border?
Americans love commitment. We love big goals—safety, freedom, accountability! But the GOP will sell these goals a lot more easily by imitating Newt and the Donald, whose leadership helped define Republicans as a party that keeps its promises. History has shown that Republicans do well with a contract in whose details we can see that they are not just talking about following through, but that they really have figured out the steps by which to do so.
Hey, Leader McCarthy, how about you take a look at those old “Contracts” and then your own Commitment? There’s still time to describe four or five more specific bills that the GOP will pass. They don’t have to be huge ones. A solid, small bill with a few biting specifics would be good. GOP voters would love to see it. So, too, would Independents who may not vote for Democrats but are ready to be convinced that the GOP really means business.
David P. Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.
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