The GOP's 'Pledge to America': a closer look at the details

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 12:07 AM

Government reform

Proposals: Republicans have a series of ideas that would change how Congress works. They would require Congress to cite the specific constitutional authority that undergirds each piece of legislation, to post bills online 72 hours before votes, and to make sure that measures are passed "one at time," meaning legislation would not be packed with numerous provisions, as often happens now.

Why they are proposing it: In two words, the tea party. Throughout last year, GOP lawmakers heard activists at town hall meetings asking repeatedly if they had read the entire health-care bill (which ran nearly 2,000 pages) and how Congress had the authority to pass it.

How it would work on paper: These are all fairly simple ideas in theory. The idea is that Congress won't pass bills like the health-care legislation because they won't find permission to do so in the Constitution. Members of the public would have days to read legislation and propose changes.

How it would work in actuality: These things were not done often from 1995 to 2006, when Republicans ran Congress. Why? It's difficult enough to get members of the same party to agree on legislation; the result is that bills often contain unrelated provisions to bring in more votes.

Congress tends to find in the Constitution whatever authority it needs to do as it pleases, no matter which party is in charge. Democrats already post most legislation days before votes, so this proposal would not lead to a meaningful change.

How it is similar to the "Contract With America": As in 1994, Republicans are proposing a variety of ideas to reform how Congress works. Just as they did then, they want to make sure that most committee meetings are open, and they want to reduce how much Congress spends on its own operations.

How it differs: Republicans in 1994 proposed term limits (12 years for members of Congress), an idea they have abandoned. Their ideas to demand that bills be posted online 72 hours before votes and to cite the constitutional authority for them are new.

Health care

Proposals: Republicans call for repealing the health-care law President Obama signed this year. In its place, they would enact a series of ideas that the GOP has long touted, such as health savings accounts, enrolling people with chronic illnesses in state-run high-risk pools and limiting medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors.

Why they are proposing it: The health-care law is highly unpopular among Republicans, and party leaders pledged almost as soon as it was passed to attempt to repeal it.

How it would work on paper: Republicans would pass a repeal through Congress, get it signed by the president (or override his veto), and then start trying to pass their own health-care ideas. Most nonpartisan analyses suggest that the various GOP ideas would insure far fewer people than the Democratic law, which is expected to cover more than 30 million people who now lack insurance.

How it would work in actuality: Congress almost never repeals legislation it has passed, and the GOP would need help from plenty of Democrats to override an Obama veto. The more likely scenario is that Republicans, if they controlled Congress, trying to limit funding of certain parts of the health-care law, thereby slowing its implementation.

How it differs from the "Contract With America": Republicans proposed almost nothing about health-care in 1994 after defeating President Bill Clinton's plan.

Spending and taxes

Proposals: Republicans would freeze the hiring of non-security federal employees, cut Congress's budget, end increases on most domestic spending programs, stop any additional spending under the Troubled Assets Relief Program and last year's economic stimulus package and reduce government waste.

Why they are proposing it: Republicans have spent the past two years attacking Obama as a big spender, so they must show that they can cut spending themselves. And the growing national debt is a problem that both parties acknowledge but haven't fixed.

How it would work on paper: Congress passes yearly appropriations bills; it can limit or cut the spending in them, although the president must sign off on this.

How it would work in actuality: These ideas, even if all implemented, would do little to reduce the budget deficit or national debt. Republicans opted against requiring the budget to be balanced every year or making changes to Medicare or Social Security that would reduce deficits now and in the future.

Obama is unlikely to sign a law stopping the stimulus package, which he championed.

How it's similar to the "Contract With America": As in 1994, Republicans are proposing a variety of tax cuts and spending reductions, reducing tax rates on income and for small businesses. Then, too, they were vague on how they would balance the federal budget.

How it differs: Many of the ideas Republicans proposed in 1994, such as cutting taxes for married couples and providing a child tax credit, were enacted over their 12 years in power. So these proposals are different. For example, Republicans now want to keep in place tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush.

National security

Proposals: Republicans did not offer a lot of detailed new proposals. They would bar trying accused terrorists on U.S. soil, not attach any unrelated measures to defense spending bills (as they accuse Democrats of doing) and "fully fund missile defense."

Why they are proposing it: Republicans have long defined themselves as the party that best understands national security, so they had to include these planks.

How it would work on paper: Congress can, in theory, affect foreign policy by denying funding for certain projects or increasing funding for others.

How it would work in actuality: Joined by some Democrats, Republicans have already effectively blocked Obama's plan to transfer accused terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States. Most of the other ideas would have to be approved by the president.

How it differs from the "Contract With America": The landscape of security issues was much different in 1994 than it is today, so the GOP's most specific idea, preventing trials of accused terrorists from happening in the United States, was not in the 1994 document.

Job creation

Proposals: Republicans would keep in place tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, reduce regulations by federal agencies on businesses, and allow small businesses to deduct up to 20 percent of their business income.

Why they are proposing it: Voters of all stripes are concerned about job creation.

How it would work on paper: Republicans say that, by getting rid of regulations and reducing taxes, more businesses would start hiring workers, thereby aiding the economy.

How it would work in actuality: The Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of this year, before the Republicans could take control of Congress, so Democrats still hold a considerable amount of the sway on that issue, and the party wants to increase taxes on household income above $250,000 a year. Also, keeping in place all of the tax cuts would make it difficult to balance the budget in the foreseeable future.

Democrats argue that the GOP has tried many of these ideas in the past and they haven't worked. And it's not clear what role federal policies play in spurring recessions or economic recoveries.

How it's similar to the "Contract With America": Reducing taxes on small businesses and reducing federal regulations were included in both documents.

How it differs: The proposals of 2010, such as allowing small businesses to deduct 20 percent of their income, are new.

Moral issues

How it differs from the "Contract With America": In 1994, Republicans offered proposals to fight child pornography, reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and make it easier to impose the death penalty. This year, they said little about these issues beyond emphasizing their opposition to federal funding for abortion.

- Perry Bacon Jr.

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