The House Republicans’ Contract with America is like miniature golf. Each tenet of the 10-item contract has its own hole, and the entire course is a fun, popular, and largely diversionary exercise meant to satisfy middle-class sensibilities. While I write, the Republicans are near the beginning of the course. By the time you read this, they could be as far along as hole seven or eight.
But the contract is no more an agenda for governing America in a new way than playing miniature golf is a way to play real golf: Instead, it diverts attention from the Republicans’ real agenda.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who also polled for Patrick Buchanan’s presidential campaign and later for Ross Perot’s, tested the components of the contract before focus groups. Only those provisions that scored a favorability rating of 60 percent or higher made it into the contract. In other words, Republicans know the items they will be voting on in the first 100 days of Congress have already been embraced by the public–hardly the definition of political leadership.
Not that Luntz sees anything wrong with abdicating leadership. “I’m a pollster,” he says. “I don’t worry about policy. I know what the people want, and I think it’s time the Republican Party starts giving people what they want and stops acting arrogant and saying, ‘This is what you need. We know what’s good for you.'”
I interviewed Luntz and other Republicans when the contract was being compiled. They told me that the essence of the contract was to build a relatively easy set of legislative goals. In truth, the Republicans who ran the hardest on the contract see it mostly as a political tool for their re-election in 1996.
As one senior aide to an up-and-coming freshman lawmaker told me: “The contract is a political document for 1996. It was never meant to be a governing document. We don’t care if the Senate passes any of the items in the contract. It would be preferable, but it’s not necessary. If the freshmen do everything the contract says, they’ll be in excellent shape for 1996, and we can add to our majority in Congress. But if we compromise the contract in order to pass laws, we lose support.”
Before we get to the real agenda, here is a quick recap of the fiscal holes on the miniature golf course known as the Contract with America. As with any harmless game, the contract doesn’t imply that any of the items will actually become law; Republicans have promised only to bring them to the floor.
By the end of the first 100 days:
- Republicans will have voted on a balanced budget amendment without describing how deeply they will have to cut welfare, student loans, and a hundred other government programs.
- They will have voted to cut taxes and raise defense spending without explaining how they will keep the deficit from rising–never mind how they will get the budget balanced by 2002.
- They will have voted to cut taxes on capital gains, to create a $500 per child tax credit for families earning up to $200,000 annually, and to repeal the new taxes on Social Security benefits for individuals who earn $34,000 or more per year and couples who earn $44,000 or more. As yet, Republicans haven’t explained how they will pay for these cuts–now or later.
- They will have voted to end a welfare mother’s benefits under the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program after two years and require every recipient to report the identity of each child’s father before collecting benefits. The bill would also bar AFDC payments to unwed mothers younger than 18. Few elements of the contract appeal more directly to middle-class sensibilities than the welfare plank. Think of it as a miniature golf hole that combines the Big Ben, the Little Red Schoolhouse, and the Taj Mahal hazards into one.
- Finally, the Republicans will have voted on a bill to eliminate “unfunded mandates.” Under the bill, any new regulatory law that imposes a mandate costing more than $50 million (a virtual certainty considering the scope of most health, safety, and environmental policy) must come with adequate federal funding to pay for state and local compliance. If Congress does not appropriate the money, the new regulation does not apply unless both houses vote to impose it without funding (a virtual impossibility under Republican control). This will also be true for any existing regulations that Congress must reauthorize.
Two reauthorizations are due in this Congress: the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act and the Superfund program. If either reauthorization includes a new mandate that costs $50 million, and Congress does not vote to foot the bill, the entire regulatory bill is nullified. If not, they will exist as they always have.
“[Eliminating unfunded mandates] is a response to the general anti-government mood in the country,” says Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. “It will jeopardize many health and safety laws I feel most American people dearly want. We would have a very hard time passing some of the regulations we have today under this kind of legislation.”
How it all adds up (or subtracts down)
In the name of fiscal responsibility, Republicans will press for deep cuts in programs many Americans have come to rely upon for their health and overall well-being. Everything from poultry inspections and federal park maintenance to health research and public broadcasting is likely to suffer.
An analysis by Bill Hoagland, the staff director for the Senate Budget Committee and the most knowledgeable on budgetary matters of all Republican staff, recently revealed that Republicans will have to reduce nondefense discretionary spending by $173 billion and mandatory spending (on entitlement programs) by $402 billion over the next five years to put the GOP on the path toward a balanced budget by 2002.
In addition to these cuts, during the years 2001 and 2002 the GOP will have to come up with another $89 billion in nondefense discretionary spending cuts and another $262 billion in entitlement cuts to reach a balanced budget. Meanwhile, Republican plans call for an $82 billion increase in defense spending and $347 billion in tax cuts from 1996 to 2002.
By their own calculations, Republicans will have to cut nondefense discretionary spending by $35 billion per year and non-Social Security entitlements by $80 billion per year for the next five years to approach a balanced budget. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole have taken Social Security off the table, while many Republicans, including House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Archer, would rather not touch another entitlement–Medicare. Therefore, other programs–among them AFDC, food stamps, Medicaid, federal pensions, and some agricultural and veterans programs–will bear the brunt of the entitlement cuts.
And where will the GOP cut discretionary spending?
- Of the $72 billion spent on agriculture in 1994, $40 billion was devoted to food and nutrition programs. These programs account for 74 percent of the discretionary agriculture budget, so any substantive cuts in this budget will wreak havoc with federal nutrition programs.
- How about the Energy Department, which Gingrich wants to abolish? Of its $17 billion budget in 1994, more than $5 billion–the largest line item in DOE’s budget–was devoted to environmental cleanup and nuclear waste disposal at trashed Defense Department sites. These costs are likely to grow as the Pentagon closes more military bases; at the same time, the cleanup budget will likely be slashed.
- What about the Interior budget? Of the $13 billion spent in 1994, nearly $7 billion was devoted to land management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Another $2.3 billion went to the Forest Service. In other words, nearly $10 billion of the Interior budget, or 75 percent, paid for the preservation of the nation’s most valuable natural resources. Expect it all to be cut back. (The budgets for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, also included in the Interior budget, cost just $347 million. Kiss them goodbye.)
- Of the $257 billion spent on the budgets of the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education in 1994, nearly $189 billion, or 74 percent, was handled as entitlement spending. The remaining $67 billion was devoted largely to education ($10 billion for Pell grants and guaranteed student loans and $4.2 billion for Head Start); job training and job-injury compensation ($5 billion for job training, $2.5 billion for unemployment, and $1 billion for black lung benefits); and public health research ($11 billion for the National Institutes of Health, $2 billion for the Centers for Disease Control, and $2 billion for substance abuse and mental health programs). The Republicans will slash funding for all these programs.
- What about veterans programs? Of the $36 billion spent in 1994 on veterans benefits, nearly half was devoted to pensions and other compensation, all considered entitlements. The second-largest line item–some $16 billion–is veterans medical care. Cutbacks are likely here, meaning the new Republican Congress may be far nastier to America’s veterans than any Democratic Congress.
- The $27 billion Supplemental Security Income program supports low-income, aged, blind, and disabled people. The average monthly stipend is $357, but federal benefits can go as high as $458 per individual and $687 per couple.
Obviously, cutting federal benefits to the poor, blind, and disabled is not what most Americans had in mind when they turned over control of Congress to the GOP. But that is what the Republicans have in store. All of the above programs would have to be radically reduced just to give the Republicans a chance of living up to their promises to cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget.
Republican Roll Call
Who are the Republicans likely to lead the country through the end of the 20th century? Some you know (Dole and Gingrich); some you will hear more about (Archer and Dick Armey). But many of the Republicans who will make the most difference in your life are completely out of the limelight.
Meet Rep. Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski. They will chair the authorizing committees in charge of much of America’s environmental policy. Both are from Alaska. Both are friends of developers. Big friends. Both have pushed for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and have called for wider timber harvesting in the Tongass National Forest. Both have also defended the 1872 mining law that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and many environmentalists want to see rewritten.
According to a senior House Republican aide, Gingrich intends to let Young “act like a son of a bitch for two years and do whatever he wants.” Then, presumably, Young will calm down. In the meantime, one can only wonder how far to the right Young will pull environmental policy from the left-of-center approach of George Miller, the California representative who doggedly fought to pass the California Desert Protection Act in the waning days of the 103rd Congress.
Meet Tom DeLay, a leader in the House Republican Conference. The Texas Republican is a leading foe of government regulations. DeLay, one of the House’s most conservative voters, won the three-way race for majority whip. “I did more than just about anyone to provide the financial and organizational support required to elect a Republican majority in this Congress. I raised or contributed more than $1.5 million for Republican candidates, particularly the freshmen. I asked for their support early on, and I was glad many of them gave it.”
DeLay has vowed to attack regulations he believes harm business: worker safety, environmental compliance, and labor rights laws. He is one of numerous Republicans who want to turn congressional hearings on their head. Instead of the traditional Democratic hearing, where victims of corporate greed and indifference were brought before network television cameras to share their tales of woe, Republicans intend to hold what many privately call “War Crimes Trials” to illustrate what they consider criminal behavior on the part of regulators.
By mid-January, Republicans had already held two such hearings. One criticized the abuse suffered by participants in the Job Corps program (witnesses said they were roughed up by other participants and that many people spent more time having sex than obtaining job training). A second illustrated the “abuses” businesses have suffered at the hands of trial lawyers. Witnesses complained of lost jobs and closed-down factories caused by trial lawyers who sought to sue profitable companies in order to get compensation for alleged human suffering due to work-related sickness or injury.
“These are just the first of many such war crimes hearings,” promises a senior House Republican aide.
David McIntosh of Indiana, another leader of the House Republican Conference, will be a key player in this effort. Although he’s only a freshman, McIntosh, 36, is an old Washington hand and a free market Republican who has spent most of his life fighting regulations. He was chair of the Council on Competitiveness, which sparred with environmentalists and the Trial Lawyers Association, while keeping close tabs on the needs and wants of big money Republicans. Before that, he served as a special assistant for domestic affairs in the Reagan administration and also as a special assistant to Attorney General Ed Meese.
McIntosh is now the chair of the Government Reform Subcommittee on regulation. He has pledged a top-to-bottom assault on health, safety, and environmental regulations.
McIntosh and DeLay will be joined in the Senate by Larry Craig of Idaho. Craig has the most conservative voting record of any Republican senator, and he is eager to carve out an area of influence on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he will attack the effect federal regulations have had on private property rights. Craig has even gone so far as to ask Dole to create a special private property rights panel on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Craig will push a point embedded deep within the contract that will require the federal government to compensate private landholders and businesses when the cost of complying with federal regulations exceeds 10 percent of the property value. Craig and other private property proponents contend that the current system–which requires landholders and corporations to pay the costs of environmental cleanup and endangered species preservation–violates the Fifth Amendment, which states “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Recently, judges have sided with landholders and businesses when the cost of complying with regulations equals or exceeds 100 percent of the land value.
The 10 percent threshold proposed by the Republicans would add billions of dollars to the government’s cost of protecting endangered species and removing dangerous substances from the air, water, and workplace–costs that Republicans are not interested in financing. Environmentalists have said, for example, the government would never have been able to ban DDT in 1972 under the Republican proposal, because of the costs associated with compensating the farmers who used the toxic insecticide.
Looking to ’96
Most elements of the contract–certainly those that have attracted the most media attention–have undeniable political appeal. But they will have limited cumulative effect on the federal government’s role in the lives of average citizens.
“The items in the contract had to be doable, and they had to be things that would have resonance with the American people,” says Rep. Bill Paxon, who is chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “That’s why school prayer and other items were left out. Teams put the proposed legislation together, but Newt made the decisions.”
Gingrich wanted to propose an agenda guaranteed to succeed. That’s why, as Paxon points out, the most interesting items in the contract are the ones that are missing: school prayer; a constitutional amendment banning abortion; a federal version of California’s Proposition 187; vouchers for home schooling or parochial schools; a flat tax; repealing affirmative action; gutting the Brady Law and the ban on assault weapons; not reauthorizing the Safe Drinking Water Act, Superfund program, Clean Air Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act.
Yet these missing items are the Republicans’ real agenda, the ones they will test after the House finishes its jaunt through the political miniature golf course of the Contract with America. President Clinton will surely veto some socially regressive legislation. But if Republicans hold onto Congress and elect a president in 1996, these missing items will immediately rise to the top of America’s governing agenda–and most of the laws Democrats have fought to enact since the days of John Kennedy could vanish or be greatly scaled back.
In the end, such measures may be just the thing to inspire passionate–as opposed to pro forma–Democratic advocacy for the issues that made the party the legislative dynamo it was in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than the torpid, insular machine it had become before the Republican knockout in November.
Major Garrett is the congressional correspondent for the Washington Times. He is the co-author, with retired congressman Timothy Penny of Minnesota, of the forthcoming book “Common Cents,” an inside look at how Congress works and what we must do to fix it.