The ‘Contract with America’: What It Really Means

Standing on the steps of the US Capitol on September 27, 1994, more than three hundred Republican candidates for the House of Representatives voiced their support for a “Contract with America.” The remarkable victory by Republicans in last November’s elections converted the Contract into a blueprint for legislative action. Although the broad contours of the Contract are generally known, little is understood about the bills now being enacted. What do they contain? How do they compare with the original plan?

The Contract indicts the national government as “too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” The three principles said to underlie the Contract’s many parts are accountability, responsibility, and opportunity. The signers of the Contract pledged to make elected officials more accountable to the public, to bring about a new, and in their view better, balance between government and personal responsibility, and to increase private opportunities by reducing taxes and curbing regulations.

Some of those goals were achieved in the opening weeks of the 104th Congress. The House eliminated several committees, cut committee staff by a third, and prohibited proxy voting in committee. The Senate also acted to reduce the size of committee budgets. By the end of the first hundred days, most of the Contract had passed the House, and two bills were signed into law. A Congressional Accountability Act requires Congress to comply with federal standards, and another statute restricts the ability of the federal government to impose expensive mandates on the states and the private sector.

Despite the extensive press coverage lavished on the Contract, deep misconceptions about it prevail. Republican rhetoric, misleading White House statements, technical complexities, the breakneck legislative pace, and superficial reporting all contribute to widespread public confusion. I deal here only with seven cases of such confusion: the Congressional Accountability Act, unfunded mandates, the National Security Act, item-veto authority, the balanced budget amendment, the private property bill, and term limits. Other proposals in Contract With America, the recently published text of the contract,

Regarding congressional accountability, the Contract states: “All laws that apply to the rest of the country [should] also apply equally to the Congress.” A number of laws, including equal employment opportunity and labor legislation, did not cover Congress. When President Bill Clinton signed the Congressional Accountability Act on January 22, he said it is “about time that Congress lived by the same laws it places on the private sector.”

This is not the first time, however, that Congress has acted on this question. The bill Clinton signed is only the latest in a series of steps taken by Congress over the years to comply with federal standards. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 subjected Congress to a number of civil rights provisions and established an Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices to provide for their enforcement. Senate employees are protected from discrimination based on …

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