The Ripon Forum

Volume 48, No. 3

September 2014

“A Contract for Today”

By on September 19, 2014


When 367 Republicans signed the Contract with America on September 27, 1994, they were not only signing onto a document that would help guide them in their campaigns, they were also signing onto a governing agenda that would help guide the party after the election.  At the time, providing such an agenda was important.  After all, it had been four decades since Republicans had last controlled Congress.  The American people had questions about what the party would do if it won a majority.  The Contract helped answer those questions.

In the years since, the party of ideas has become known as the party of “no.”  Clearly, much of this opposition has been a necessary part of governing.  Moreover, with many now predicting that Republicans will not only hold the House but win the Senate this November, one could also argue that this opposition has been politically astute.  And yet the fact remains that if these predictions are proven true, the party will need an agenda that goes beyond simply opposing whatever legislation or policy initiative the Obama Administration may propose.

Fortunately, the elements of such an agenda already exist.  They can be found in the votes and bills that have been debated and discussed by Republicans over the past two decades of GOP rule on Capitol Hill.  Some of these ideas were passed by the House as part of the Contract with America 20 years ago and were narrowly defeated in the Senate, never making it into law.  Others were passed by the House in more recent years and sent to the Senate, where they were never considered and died a quiet death.   Still others were introduced by Republican Chairmen, debated in Committee and, for whatever reason, never taken up for a vote on the floor.

As the American people prepare to cast their votes in the 2014 mid-terms, the Forum thought it would be instructive to pull 10 of these elements together into one document.  For headline purposes, we are calling it “A Contract for Today.”   But the truth of the matter is that it is a realistic agenda for Republicans to pursue should they control the Legislative Branch next year.  The agenda includes:


1) Restoring Accountability to our Government – many people forget that Senate Republicans came one short vote of passing the Balanced Budget Amendment in 1995.  With 24 states now calling for a constitutional convention to approve such an amendment, look for the new Republican Majority to hold another vote on the issue in 2015. While they are at it, look for them to also renew their call for a federal Sunset Commission, an idea long championed by Congressman Kevin Brady, and vote on legislation introduced by Senator Rob Portman to require independent agencies to publish the costs and benefits of new rules deemed to be economically significant.

2) Making U.S. Energy More Affordable and Available – despite the best efforts of the Obama Administration to overregulate the nation’s energy sector, America’s energy renaissance is well underway.  Look for the new GOP Majority to continue this renaissance by passing legislation such as Rep. Lee Terry’s bill to build the Keystone Pipeline, Fred Upton’s measure to increase transparency at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rep. Cory Gardner’s proposal to increase exports of liquefied natural gas to U.S. allies around the world.

3) Reforming the Tax Code So it Serves People, not Special Interests – Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp introduced a comprehensive tax reform bill earlier this year that, among other things, would close loopholes, reduce the number of brackets, and lower the corporate tax rate to keep U.S. companies – and U.S. profits – from going overseas.   Although the bill was not considered by the House, Camp’s legislation should serve as a foundation that the new Republican Majority can use to move tax reform next year.

4) Strengthening our Border Security and Improving our Immigration Laws – House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul introduced legislation last year that would strengthen border security by, among other things, would require the Homeland Security Department to develop a plan to gain operational control of the entire Southwest border within five years.  The plan was unanimously approved by the Homeland Security Committee, but never voted on in the full House.  Look for the new GOP Majority to bring the McCaul bill up for a vote and use it as a spring board to tackle the more difficult issues surrounding immigration reform.

5) Providing Better Education in the Classroom and Better Job Training to Workers in Need – As the nation debates the merits of the Common Core Standards, efforts have been underway to improve and strengthen the educational choices that American students have.  Case in point – a bill supported by Education & Workforce Committee leaders John Kline (R-MN) and George Miller (D-CA) to expand the number of charter schools around the country.  The bill passed the House this spring by an overwhelming vote of 360-45.  If Republicans control Congress next year, look for the bill to be the centerpiece of a GOP education agenda, along with a measure passed by the House last year to streamline federal job training programs and make it easier for Americans to acquire the skills needed for a new job.

6) Keeping America Secure in an Increasingly Volatile World – since 2010, U.S. defense spending has been cut by 21 percent.  But as events in the Middle East and Ukraine have demonstrated, the threats and challenges to the U.S. have continued to increase over that time. Look for the new Republican majority to reverse this increase to make sure America is prepared to meet and defeat these threats.  At the same time, look for Republicans to make sure taxpayers are getting the best value out of their defense dollars by embracing the acquisition reform initiative being spearheaded by House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry, which is set to unveil a set of recommendations next year.

7) Reforming Health Care in a Way That Controls Costs and Expands Patient Choices – President Obama promised that Americans would be able to keep their current health care if the Affordable Care Act became law.  He also promised that people’s premiums would not increase.  Both promises have been proven untrue.  Premiums in the individual market increased by an average of 41 percent nationwide between 2013 and 2014, while millions of people have lost their health coverage; nearly 250,000 Virginians are expected to see their policies cancelled this fall alone.  Look for the new Republican Majority to reverse these weaknesses in the current law by passing reforms contained in legislation introduced earlier this year by Senators Orrin Hatch, Richard Burr, and Tom Coburn.  Among other things, the bill – called the Patient CARE Act — would expand coverage through tax credits, not mandates, and control costs by allowing small businesses to band together to negotiate health plans and by medical malpractice reform.

8) Saving Social Security and Medicare for Future Generations of Americans – Social Security has been running a permanent cash-flow deficit since 2010, while Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund is scheduled to go bankrupt in 2030.  With Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, look for the new majority to resume their push for programmatic reform.  Where should they begin?  On Medicare, take a look at the bipartisan modernization plan that Congressman Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) introduced earlier this year that would focus reform on the program’s biggest cost-driver – chronic care.  On Social Security, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) proposed a series of reforms this past spring that merit consideration, including raising the retirement age, repealing the Social Security Earnings Limit, and allowing Americans to enroll in the same retirement program as Congress and other federal workers.

9) Strengthening the Federal Safety Net for Those in Need Today – when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, 23 percent of children in the U.S. were living in impoverished conditions.  Despite the fact that the federal government has spent $16 trillion on this effort in the years since, 22 percent of American children are still living in poverty.  Look for the new Republican Majority to see if taxpayers get can get better value for their tax dollars by reforming the way anti-poverty funds are spent.  Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) introduced a comprehensive plan this past summer that would do just that by, among other things, consolidating 11 programs into one and giving states more flexibility in determining how federal anti-poverty tax dollars are being spent.

10) Making Congress Work Better for the American People – one of the hallmarks of the Contract with America in 1994 is that it reformed the institution of Congress itself.  Twenty years later, the days of ice buckets being delivered to member offices are long gone.  But many of the processes and procedures that govern the House and Senate remain frozen in the past,  With public approval of Congress at an all-time low the new GOP Majority should consider adopting a set of reforms to modernize the institution that two former Republican Senators had a hand in drafting.  The reforms, unveiled by the Bipartisan Policy Center this year and co-authored by a group of legislative experts that included former Senators Trent Lott (R-MS) and Olympia Snowe (R-MN), would among other things require biennial budgeting to improve long range planning, encourage more conference committees between the two chambers, and require the House and Senate to schedule five day work weeks in Washington followed by one week working at home.

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