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Feehery: Republicans map out their approach to governance

Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik
AP/Barry Reeger
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., right, listens as House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks at DMI Companies in Monongahela, Pa., Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. McCarthy joined with other House Republicans to unveil their “Commitment to America” agenda. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Commitment, of course, is a two-way street. 

For Republicans to fulfill their new Commitment to America, the American people have to commit to giving them control of the House of Representatives. 

My sense is that voters were going to do that, no matter what the House Republicans promised to do in return. 

In 1994, when Reps. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Tom DeLay (R-Texas) put together the Contract with America, they promised the American people big, bold changes in bright, living color. The press event announcing the Contract was preceded by an ad in TV Guide, which in retrospect might seem to be an odd choice to unveil a political platform.

The event itself, held on a bright, sunny September morning on the west front steps of the Capitol building, was patriotic in its red, white and blue splendor. There was a festive, otherworldly air to the moment. Nobody expected the Republicans to take back the House, and so nobody really took the promises made by the revolutionary Republicans seriously. 

The promises were actually very specific. The legislative language was not exactly set in stone, but the concepts were direct and poll-tested. The timeline was immutable. Like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promise, all of this was going to get done in the first 100 days (at least out of the House).

I was taking a short break from Washington out in Illinois, and I can tell you that the Contract was not a principle reason nor a secondary reason for the Republican victory in 1994. Most voters hadn’t heard of it, or if they did, they didn’t think twice about it. 

Politicians make many campaign promises, and business as usual is what usually prevails. It wasn’t Republican promises that carried the day in November 1994. It was Democratic corruption in the House (the Bank scandal, the Postal scandal, etc.), Bill Clinton’s misreading of his mandate in 1992, and specific issues, like gays in the military, the assault weapon ban and Clinton’s very unpopular tax-and-spend budget that motivated Republicans to turn out in record numbers. 

But once the GOP had the majority, they had a solid game plan on how to govern that had the support of just about every Republican candidate and incumbent who won their election (Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois being the notable exception). 

So much of leadership is about having a plan that the followers have bought into. And for Gingrich and his leadership team, the new majority was able, from day one, to keep the whole conference unified and pass a pretty remarkable litany of legislation. They didn’t pass everything. A bill to establish a 12-year term limit failed, but Republicans still got kudos for bringing  it to the floor.

After the first 100 days, the new majority’s drive to reshape America slowed down, as the saucer that cools the passions of the House, the United States Senate, served its constitutional role and slow-walked or killed many of the top priorities of the rambunctious House Republicans, chief among them a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and an effort to give the president a line-item veto. 

Looking back on the Contract and then looking forward to the Commitment, the difference comes with specifics and urgency. The Contract had all kinds of specifics and all kinds of urgency. The Commitment seems a little more vague, both in timing and policy. 

The Contract was done on a lark when very few truly believed that the House could be won. Pretty much everybody has already concluded that Republicans will take the House this November, so the Commitment reflects that more cautious approach to governing. 

One common thread of both the Contract and the Commitment is the widespread support of Republicans from all parts of the Conference. If Republicans want to accomplish anything over the next two years, they have to stay unified. A dysfunctional House GOP majority will be the only thing that will make Biden’s dysfunctional White House look good to the voters in 2024.

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.). 

Tags Bill Clinton Commitment to America contract with america Newt Gingrich Tom DeLay

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