Last week, 13 Republicans released a “Pledge to America. What is most surprising to me is its length. At 21 pages, it was many times the length of the GOP’s hugely successful 1994 “Contract with America. Why ditch a winning formula? Furthermore, our increasingly unpopular president is known for being long-winded, and his progressive allies in Congress are infamous for concocting ridiculously long bills. Wouldn’t a simple, concise list of objectives accentuate the contrast between the two parties?
Instead of sticking to the main theme of reining in an insanely expensive and increasingly intrusive government, the pledge was padded with statements designed to rally the traditionally Republican pro-life, pro-military, and small business constituencies. Yes, those areas are important, but the single issue that unites the largest number of Americans today is the concern that if we don’t check runaway government soon, we never will. The too-broad pledge ends up being a hodgepodge of clichéd sloganeering. It offers superficially bold but often frustratingly vague proposals, occasionally dubious math, and at least one glaring omission.
A Faulty Pledge to America
Here are some examples of the pledge’s faults:
It expresses an intent to “make government more transparent . careful in its stewardship and honest in its dealings. But doesn’t every party claim this? Why not pledge to drastically shrink government instead?
It also promises “a better America. Who would promise a “worse America?
It offers “[a plan whereby] the best ideas trump the most entrenched interests. Sure. Then why not put entrenched interests on notice by forswearing earmarks? (This is the glaring omission I spotted.)
It aims to “eliminate wasteful and duplicative programs . while still fulfilling all necessary obligations. Everyone promises to trim waste, but it never happens; instead, too-big bureaucracies proliferate and expand. More fundamentally, where do Republicans differ from Democrats on the “necessary obligations of government?
It seeks to “require congressional approval of any new federal regulation that may add to our deficit and make it harder to create jobs. Why not insert a period after “regulation and leave out the qualifiers that follow? Currently, rules proposed by federal bureaucracies take effect automatically unless Congress which is too busy to even read its own bills, much less reams of bureaucratic regulations explicitly rejects them, and so they are almost never challenged. Change it so that no rule proposed by unelected bureaucrats takes effect unless Congress explicitly votes to adopt it.
The Pledge to America is Ambiguous
The pledge suffers from occasional ambiguity. Its proposal to replace Obamacare with reforms like liability reform and permitting inter-state sales of health insurance makes sense. But then the Republicans sound just like Democrats when they promise to “ensure [do they mean “mandate?] that those with pre-existing conditions gain access to the coverage they need.
Remember the promise to eliminate “duplicative programs? Then why promise “a net hiring freeze for federal employees instead of reducing the federal payroll after Obama’s rapid expansion of it?
The pledge calls for “preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities. Fine, but simply freezing the amount of those unpayable promises isn’t enough. If we don’t eliminate many trillions of those liabilities, our financial doom is sealed.
Another intriguing proposal is to require every bill to include a citation of constitutional authority. Do Republicans regard such authority as the letter of the Constitution itself or merely judicial opinions written about the Constitution?
Overall, the pledge is not very bold. The authors’ numbers suggest very modest plans for downsizing Uncle Sam. At one point, they write about rolling spending back to “pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels. That sounds like at least a trillion-dollar cut to me, but then they say that such a step would save $100 billion. Huh?
The pledge has its redeeming features. Invoking the Declaration of Independence at the outset is inspiring. Some of the facts cited hit home e.g., how much higher taxes will be next year for middle class families and single moms if the Bush tax cuts expire; the existence of 2,050 federal programs providing economic assistance to Americans.
Pledge to America a Mixed Bag
At best, though, the “Pledge to America is a mixed bag. Clearly, its Republican authors sought to chart a middle path between Democrats and the Tea Party movement. In that, they succeeded.
This is probably a sound political strategy for the GOP. With voters weary of heavy-handed, hatch-it-behind-closed-doors-in-the-middle-of-the-night-then-ram-it-into-law-before-anyone-reads-it legislation (not to mention counterproductive “stimulus plans, in-your-face cronyism, and soaring national debt), 2010 is the Republicans’ election to lose. All they have to do is run to the right of Obama and they will make large gains in Congress.
Would the “Pledge to America, even if adopted in its entirety, be enough to turn us off our current road to national bankruptcy? No. But perhaps it will prove to be the first of many steps needed to restore economically sound governance to our country.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.