This week Republicans in the House of Representatives issued an agenda for the future called the “Pledge to America.” The idea of making a promise to the American people as was done with the “Contract for America” in the 1990s is an appealing step in the right direction, but the pledge is a timid and unambitious plan, and based on their track record, why should we have any confidence in their willingness to follow through on their promises even if they could with Democrat opposition?
These are the same legislators who have again and again funded bailouts and stimulus packages and who have signed off on any level of war and military spending for a decade without showing any sign of an interest in fiscal responsibility. Now they feel threatened by anti-establishment candidates and the rise of the party’s grassroots, but the agenda they are pledging to pursue falls far short of what most Republicans and concerned independents are demanding from our government.
Further, although they have kept their demands relatively modest in some key areas like budget reduction, they demand expansions of Congressional power which are ambitious and unrealistic and not likely to be utterly beyond their power to implement over a presidential veto, a strategy which just sets them up for guaranteed failure.
Some of the ideas are indeed very good, if mostly symbolic. For example, requiring all bills to include a citation of Constitutional authority is appealing, even if it is largely meaningless. Similarly the demand to require a three day public access period for pending bills where citizens and legislators can read what they are going to vote on answers a public demand for legislative accountability. It’s probably not enough time to read some of the massive bills which get written and it doesn’t make legislators actually take the effort to read the bills, but it makes the job of the staff members who do read the bills somewhat easier and will slow down the breakneck pace at which some bills get rushed through to avoid scrutiny.
Much more important, if they actually followed through on the letter of their pledge, is the demand that they will stop bundling unpopular bills with major legislation to bully legislators into passing them. This highly politicized practice has been a mainstay of the Democrats and is particularly offensive. It makes no sense to controversial special interest legislation on things like the military or transportation appropriations bills. The pledge here does not go far enough. They should promise to ban any addition of amendments which do not apply directly to the content of bills and require them to be voted on as stand-alone bills, not amendments.
Their proposals on the budget sound comprehensive, but while they touch on many areas they lack substance. They propose a budget cap, but it sets no specific level for the cap. They promise a federal hiring freeze, but exempt security related jobs, one of the fastest growing, most potentially abusive and most unnecessary areas of government. I’d rather see them cut the Department of Homeland Security entirely and privatize the Transportation Safety Administration, as well as reduce the sizes of other federal security agencies. They promise to roll back spending to “pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” which means that the already bloated spending level of the Bush era will be preserved. That’s just not adequate. The proposed savings of $100 billion a year from these trivial reductions is less than 10% of the current budget. It’s a bandaid applied to a severed limb. They should be promising progressive cuts with a target of reducing yearly budgets to the area of $500 billion within 5 years.
They plan to demand congressional approval of any new federal regulations which add to the deficit or make it harder to create jobs – so vague it could apply to anything. Congressional oversight of the federal bureaucracy is a good idea, but it’s just pushing small numbers around when they should be cutting entire programs and agencies.
One appealing proposal in the area of cuts is the establishment of a federal “sunset” system like those in many states where agencies and programs would be periodically reviewed and potentially shut down if the prove unnecessary or ineffective. A great idea, but likely to turn into nothing but a meaningless rubber stamp and yet another bureaucracy as it has in many states.
There’s a host of other proposals which are all good intentions with no practical reality. How these elected and serving Republicans can propose ideas which they know that even with a majority they will be unable to get past a filibuster is inexplicable. There’s also a lot of rhetoric we’ve seen before: opposition to card check, promising to stop cap and trade, ending federal funding of abortion. There’s also an interesting idea to cut taxes by 20% for small businesses. It’s appealing but again, inadequate. They should eliminate all corporate taxes at all levels if they really want to stimulate the economy and eliminate double taxation.
I like their proposal to end future bailouts and cancel TARP, but almost all of the TARP money has been spent and they don’t seem to have a plan to actually reverse the enormous bailout spending. Plus, reversing any of that spending over the objections of the unions and the businesses which benefit from it seems unrealistic unless they win a super majority in both houses. Similarly, their proposed reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be blocked by Democrats in the pockets of real estate and banking interest.
They also go after Obamacare, but don’t seem to have a real plan for eliminating it, so they focus on reforming it and picking it to death with a repeal of the mandates on small businesses and various vague reform ideas and repeated buzz phrases like “empower small businesses.” Nothing new, nothing radical and nothing which will really make a difference is proposed.
Most of these proposals seem well-intentioned but they are vague and don’t include specific targets or hard numbers and when you try to put numbers to them they don’t really add up. And the thing which throws all the math off is their lengthy discussion of what they absolutely won’t cut: medicare, social security, medicare, the military, foreign aid, homeland security, the overseas wars and deployments and subsidies to local law enforcement. They firmly assert their commitment to expansionism, a security state and violation of the rights of citizens in the name of law and order.
Putting aside the civil rights and foreign policy concerns, the main problem with their proposed “hands off” areas of government is that they add up to about three quarters of the federal budget, and without cutting them it is impossible to even implement the modest spending cuts they propose, much less the far more radical cuts we really need. The math just doesn’t work. You can’t cut the budget substantially while making the majority of it off limits to cuts. To claim you can is just ridiculous.
This pledge is getting a lot of coverage in the media, perhaps because it is so lukewarm and futile. It doesn’t present a strong message for the Republican Party. Many Republicans are disavowing it, from future Senator Rand Paul to current rising star Senator Jim DeMint. It’s not what the grassroots of the party are demanding and in many ways it’s a declaration of irrelevancy from the party establishment. If this is the best they can come up with, it may be time to push them out of the way and find leaders who can actually lead. The people demand and deserve better.