In the fall of 1994, the Republican Party was reeling. At the time, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. For the past 40 years, Democrats had held the majority in the House of Representatives. Many wondered if the Reagan Revolution was dead.
In the midst of this doom and gloom, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), an outspoken conservative known to challenge the GOP establishment old guard, developed a bold blueprint to rebrand the Republican Party and reclaim the people’s House. Gingrich called it the Contract with America (CWA).
As the leaves gathered that fall, 25 years ago, Republicans unveiled the CWA to the American public and pledged to uphold it if they won election to Congress. Their marketing campaign was brilliantly simple. They inserted a Cliffs Notes version of the CWA in the TV Guide, which virtually every American household received in the prehistoric days before the internet.
Gingrich described the CWA roll-out: “We will have over 300 candidates for Congress from all over America coming to the Capitol steps to pledge a checklist and a contract. We have a basic document that says, ‘A campaign promise is one thing, a signed contract is quite another.’”
In November 1994, voters overwhelmingly elected Republicans based on their promise to enact the CWA. The GOP won 235 House and 53 Senate seats. It was a total landslide that ushered in a long-overdue changing of the congressional guard, so to speak. Many christened the election outcome as the birth of the Republican Revolution.
In January 1995, the Republicans marched into Congress, ready to launch their revolution. Immediately, they got to work. In the first 100 days, they passed every single major plank of the CWA. Here is a quick rundown:
- The Fiscal Responsibility Act
- What it was: “A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment …to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress.”
- What happened: The Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) passed the House, but fell one measly vote shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate. In Fiscal Years 1998-2002, however, the U.S. government ran four balanced budgets which created more than $400 billion in surpluses.
- What needs to be done: The United States national debt is a mind boggling $25 trillion. A BBA would do much to improve the perilous U.S. fiscal outlook.
- The Taking Back Our Streets Act
- What it was: “An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in-sentencing, ‘good faith’ exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer’s ‘crime’ bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools.”
- What happened: Virtually all provisions passed, including a block grant program to fund local law enforcement, a major nod to federalism.
- What needs to be done: Although the CWA ushered in an era of reduced violent crime, decades later we are still struggling with far too much violent crime, especially in urban areas. Congress should continue to reform the criminal justice system with the goals of stronger sentences for violent offenders and reducing recidivism.
- The Personal Responsibility Act
- What it was: “Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers … cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.”
- What happened: The vast majority of these provisions were eventually signed into law by President Clinton, after he vetoed similar legislation twice.
- What needs to be done: Unfortunately, the Obama administration gutted the welfare reforms with a barrage of executive orders and regulatory changes. The Trump administration is reversing much of this, however, strong welfare reform is still a top agenda item for the GOP.
- The Family Reinforcement Act
- What it was: “Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society.”
- What happened: Over time, many pieces of this legislative package became law, such as the child pornography laws and tax incentives for adoption.
- What needs to be done: Several of these problems still pervade our culture. Perhaps Congress should readdress them based on current circumstances.
- The American Dream Reinforcement Act
- What it was: “A $500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle-class tax relief.”
- What happened: A mixed bag. Most fundamental elements passed the House, however, several aspects were killed in the Senate and vetoed by Clinton.
- What needs to be done: Trump has made progress on many of these fronts. More tax relief for all Americans, especially the middle- and working-classes, would be more than welcome.
- The National Security Restoration Act
- What it was: “No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world.”
- What happened: Most of this was passed by the House, but died in the Senate. Some attribute this lack of military upgrade to the U.S. vulnerability in the 9/11 attacks.
- What needs to be done: The Trump administration has overseen a vast enhancement of the U.S. military. American armed forces, however, bear the burden in most conflicts and peacekeeping missions across the world.
- The Senior Citizens Fairness Act
- What it was: “Raise the Social Security earnings limit … repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits, and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years.”
- What happened: Another mixed bag. Some parts became law. Others passed the House but were stalled in the Senate or vetoed by Clinton.
- What needs to be done: Social Security is massively underfunded, and many estimate the trust fund will become bankrupt by 2035. It is imperative Congress reform the program sooner rather than later. An opt-out provision or 401(k)-like alternative are just some of the possible solutions.
- The Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act
- What it was: “Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages.”
- What happened: Most of these bills became law, which helped fuel the huge economic expansion of the mid-to late 1990s.
- What needs to be done: Like too many aspects of the CWA, this monumental progress was eventually retarded by tax raises and huge influxes of burdensome regulations. Congress should reintroduce updated versions of these core elements to spur an American economic Renaissance.
- The Common Sense Legal Reform Act
- What it was: “‘Loser pays’ laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation.”
- What happened: Yet another mixed bag result. Some parts were vetoed by Clinton; however, Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact tort reform.
- What needs to be done: Many of these problems have lingered, gotten worse, and continue to plague the U.S. legal system. Frivolous lawsuits, endless legal battles, and an overburdened court system require drastic reform.
- The Citizen Legislature Act
- What it was: “A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.”
- What happened: With a simple majority (not a two-thirds majority, as required per the Constitution for amendments), the House passed a non-binding resolution to enact a Constitutional amendment that would have imposed 12-year term limits (six terms for Representatives, two terms for Senators) for all members of Congress.
- What needs to be done: Far too many members of Congress have become permanent politicians, something the founding founders would absolutely abhor. A term limits amendment would do much to blunt the power of the so-called “ruling class,” i.e., career politicians.
A quarter-century ago, the CWA was introduced to and embraced by the American public. The CWA sent a political shockwave across the country and changed the political landscape for years to come.
Hey GOP, Halloween is right around the corner. What a perfect time to resurrect the CWA! For Americans, that would certainly be a great “trick” and a very sweet-tasting “treat.”
Chris Talgo ([email protected]) is an editor at The Heartland Institute.