I stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol along with 367 other Republican candidates for Congress. It was Sept. 27, 1994, and I was the GOP nominee for Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District. We gave speeches, waved flags and signed the Contract With America. It was a big media event because no one had done it before. It was a gamble.
The Contract With America nationalized that year’s midterm elections, which went against former Speaker
canard that all politics is local. My polling showed I was ahead of my opponent, a 36-year incumbent who could only attack me personally as a rich plastic surgeon. I was new to politics and had no voting record. I batted away his ad hominem attacks with testimonials from patients, such as the farmer who lost his thumb in a farm accident. I made him a new one by transplanting his big toe.
Another campaign tenet is that you don’t give your opponent something to shoot at—don’t put specific policies on the table. Sure enough, my opponent ran a series of ads against me and the contract produced by the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee. It cost my campaign several hundred thousand dollars to answer those attacks. Republican candidates will see the same thing with the Commitment to America, which Minority Leader
The Commitment to America is a gamble, too, but probably less so than the contract because it isn’t as specific. The 1994 document included a list of eight specific reforms the Republicans promised to enact and 10 specific bills we promised to bring to the floor for a vote. These proposals were limited to “60% issues”—those for which polls showed at least 60% support. The first day of our majority we promised to bring up for a vote eight major reforms: We’d apply all laws to Congress itself; perform a comprehensive audit of Congress for fraud, waste and abuse; cut bloated staff by a third; limit the terms of committee chairmen; open all committee meetings to the public; institute a three-fifths majority to increase taxes; adopt zero-based budgeting; and ban proxy voting.
We vowed to vote on term limits and a balanced-budget amendment. We had bills for reforming welfare, fighting crime, creating a child tax credit, legal reform and limiting federal regulations.
In November, Republicans gained 54 House seats (along with nine in the Senate), taking the majority for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich was vindicated in his belief that voters wanted something to vote for, not simply a reason to vote against the other candidate or party. The contract was a governing document. It told voters what we would do if they gave us a majority.
The contract was as valuable after the election as it was before. We kept our promise by working 93 straight days to pass those reforms and bills. Most made it into law. The Balanced Budget Amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate by one vote. The term-limit votes got majorities but not the two-thirds required for constitutional amendments. We cut spending, balanced the budget for four straight years and even paid down $230 billion in national debt. We finally got President Clinton to sign the welfare-reform bill.
The 2022 Commitment to America includes a slate of general policy recommendations in four broad categories: “An Economy That’s Strong,” “A Nation That’s Safe,” “A Future That’s Built on Freedom,” and “A Government That’s Accountable.” It is less specific than the contract though it does pledge to put an end to proxy voting. My own representative, Democrat
recently claimed Covid made her vote by proxy on the Inflation Reduction Act. Fox News reported she was vacationing in France with her family.
The commitment contains some other specifics—such as a promise to cut off funding for 86,000 new Internal Revenue Service agents—but is on the whole more aspirational than the contract. It focuses heavily on inflation and rising crime and calls for “protecting the lives of unborn children and their mothers.” Like the contract, the commitment essentially nationalizes the election. GOP candidates will certainly see new attacks based on it. Whether it ends up helping or hurting the Republicans in their quest to retake the House is something we’ll have to wait to find out.
Dr. Ganske is a retired plastic surgeon. He served as a U.S. representative from Iowa, 1995-2003.
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