Joined: Sat May 29, 2004 11:46 pm
|10 years later, GOP hypocrites ignore their very own 'Contract with America'
By Rick Klein, Boston Globe
WASHINGTON -- They stormed into Congress a decade ago, a fresh-faced band of Republican candidates brandishing a Contract with America that promised balanced budgets, "citizen legislators" who would serve and return to the private sector, and a restored trust in the nation's elected leaders as the GOP took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
But after 10 years of Republican control of the House, members of the majority party appear to have strayed from some of the promises that got them there. The nation is running up record budget deficits, term-limit pledges are being jettisoned, and House Republicans voted last week to weaken the ethics-enforcement process in Congress.
Now, the Contract with America is relevant again -- as a reference point for growing disagreements among Republicans about how far they have strayed from their core principles.
The items from the contract that have fallen by the wayside have been cited repeatedly in recent days and months by Republicans frustrated by the gap between their leaders' rhetoric and reality. Voices are emerging from within the Republican Party to return the GOP to the simple planks of the contract that helped the party gain power in the House.
"The first thing we were asked to do [in Congress] was to raise the ethical standards, and the first thing that this new  freshman class was asked to do was to lower the standards," said Representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee, who was one of 73 newly elected Republican House members who took office in January 1995.
"There clearly are some areas where we've gone astray," Wamp said. "But the movement is alive. There's a great second wind among reformers."
Last week, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's leadership team sought to sharply limit the number of ethics investigations of House members in a move widely seen as an effort to protect House majority leader Tom DeLay, whose fund-raising practices have drawn legal scrutiny. But facing outrage from Wamp and other rank-and-file Republicans, Hastert retreated and agreed to reinstate a policy that would force representatives who are indicted to leave their leadership posts.
In addition, a conservative advocacy group, the Club for Growth, last year began targeting moderate Republicans in primary campaigns, with a particular eye toward restoring fiscal responsibility. Pat Toomey, who gave up his House seat to challenge Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in the primary last year, said the biggest disappointment of the GOP control of Congress is that so many Republicans have acted like the Democrats they once sharply criticized for their free-spending ways.
"A lot of people get into elected office, and suddenly they're not so fond of limiting government," said Toomey, who narrowly lost his challenge and is now president of the Club for Growth. "The same thing happens with both parties, unfortunately."
The Contract with America had some dazzling successes. Nine of the 10 bills in the contract passed the House in 1995, with only term limits going down in defeat. The Republican Congress worked with President Clinton to pass a bill overhauling welfare. In 1998, the federal budget was balanced for the first time in nearly 30 years, and Republicans have not given up control of the House since they took it over in 1995.
The contract ushered in a sea change in congressional politics, with a stunning gain of 54 seats. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's emergence forced a reordering of the priorities for much of the Clinton administration, and, for a time, the growth of government was curbed.
"It did a lot to turn around the trend line toward ever more and more government," said Michael Franc, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, who served as an aide to House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas in the mid-1990s.
But the movement lost steam, particularly after a government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996 that proved to be a public-relations disaster for Republicans. Democrats chipped away at the Republican majority in the House in 1996 and 1998, and GOP lawmakers started worrying more about their own jobs than about the ideals they espoused when first elected, Franc said.
"After three years or so, they went from revolutionaries to members of a committee or a state's delegation," he said. "They shifted their senses of identity, and it became a lot easier for them to say, 'Well we have to get this project.' They lost their way with respect to the size and scope of government."
Term-limit pledges were abandoned, most famously by George R. Nethercutt Jr., who had promised to serve only six years in Congress. He became a poster child for term limits in his 1994 upset of then-House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a 30-year veteran, but Nethercutt nonetheless ran for fourth and fifth terms before giving up his seat to run for the Senate last year. At least seven Republican House members who had pledged to leave Congress after the current term are gearing up for reelection, according to US Term Limits, a watchdog group.
On spending, the contract called for a balanced budget, but Republicans have failed to produce anything close to that in recent years. This year's deficit is estimated to exceed $400 billion, and even President Bush's goal to halve the deficit within five years is widely viewed as unrealistic.
Republicans defend the spending by noting the need for increased security and defense funding after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We got it done, and then came 9/11, and suddenly nothing was the same," said Representative J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, a Republican member of the freshman class of 1995. "Can we do a better job? Sure. But we should not be blind to the fact that we are a nation at war, that we do have serious items on the national agenda."
But Congress has passed huge tax cuts in the changed security climate, draining hundreds of billions of dollars from the Treasury without cutting spending accordingly. In addition, the House in recent years has approved huge new expenditures, including $170 billion in farm subsidies and $375 billion in transportation programs. Two years ago, Republican leaders pushed through a prescription drug benefit under Medicare that is expected to cost at least $500 billion over 10 years, making it the biggest expansion since the program was created during Lyndon Johnson's presidency in 1965.
"For Republicans, it's become clear that big tax cuts are much more of a priority than a balanced budget," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal restraint. "They're happy that they got the tax cuts. Now what you hear are a lot of excuses about deficits."
On internal House matters, where Republicans promised to "restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives," Gingrich and his allies railed against Democratic abuses of power. And most observers contend that the depiction of the Democrats as a complacent, and possibly corrupt, bureaucracy contributed to their defeat.
But the current majority leader, DeLay of Texas, was formally upbraided by the Ethics Committee three times last year for his bare-knuckle political tactics. Republicans kept the Medicare prescription drug vote open for an unprecedented three hours as they twisted arms to garner the necessary votes.
Meanwhile, Republicans have altered House rules to limit debate and increased the number of bills presented to members without allowing any changes -- a practice for which the GOP excoriated the Democrats in 1994
"It's exactly the abuse of authority and process that Republicans criticized the Democrats for doing when they were in power," said Thomas J. Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy organization. "There is a certain arrogance of power, and some Republicans convince themselves that because they have the right views, their methodology will always be correct."
But to some members of the Contract with America freshman class, there were hopeful signs in the fact that House leaders retreated on their proposal to water down ethics rules. They successfully made the case that all members of Congress have an obligation to a high standard of conduct, Hayworth said.
"They came back to their senses. We returned to our moorings, to our foundations," he said. "Those of us who remain are more committed to the reform agenda that brought us here. Now we have a good dose of know-how to see those things through."
That's one focus of a Contract with America reunion this weekend in Arizona, where about half of the GOP lawmakers who came to Congress in 1995 will reminisce and strategize along with the contract's principal architect, Gingrich, who resigned from the House to avoid being ousted from the speakership six years ago.
Many of the members of the class of 1995 have moved on to governorships, Senate seats, or into the private sector, but most of the 30 still in the House are committed to the principles that got them there, Wamp said.
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com
Reprinted from The Boston Globe:
http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washi ... cles/2005/
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