Is new Republican 'Pledge to America' all hat and no cattle?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The "Pledge to America" that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives rolled out Thursday is unlikely to reshape this fall's congressional elections — or refurbish the nation's economy.

Republican candidates already have plenty of momentum going into the November elections, and the GOP's new agenda is full of themes that congressional Republicans have been pushing for nearly two years: Extend all the Bush-era tax cuts, repeal this year's health care overhaul and freeze most federal spending at 2008-09 levels.

"Across America, the people see a government in Washington that isn't listening, doesn't get it and doesn't care. Today, that begins to change," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said at a Virginia lumber and hardware store, where the plan was unveiled.

The GOP plan, however, doesn't have much to say about some of the day's most pressing issues.

It doesn't address how to deal with the projected shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, discuss how to wage or end the war in Afghanistan or deal with the U.S. mission in Iraq. Nor does it propose many spending cuts or detail how Republicans would offset the cost of the Bush tax reductions. The cuts will expire at the end of this year unless Congress acts, and extending them all is estimated to cost about $3.7 trillion over the next 10 years.

Democrats want to extend only those reductions that affect individuals who earn less than $200,000 a year in adjusted gross income and joint filers who make less than $250,000, but GOP lawmakers, and many moderate Democrats, want all the cuts extended, at least for a while. Democratic senators said Thursday that a pre-election vote appeared unlikely, but some action is expected before the end of the year.

The House Republicans' plan also proposes hard caps on non-entitlement spending, something that President George H.W. Bush agreed to and that proved vital in reducing the deficits that accumulated during the Ronald Reagan era in the 1980s.

The new plan also advocates slashing discretionary spending, but it promises a robust defense and makes no mention of Medicare or Social Security. Those three areas, plus interest on the debt — not spending by government agencies — are what threaten to swamp the federal budget.

"When they talk about cutting government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, they immediately exclude seniors, veterans and defense from that promise," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group. "Besides the fact that considering our budget woes, everything should be on the table for consideration, that leaves a pretty small slice of pie to be whittling away at, and it's hard to believe there is $100 billion in savings available as promised."

Another Pledge to America staple is ending government control of mortgage-finance titans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Obama administration, however, already has promised a bill by December to revamp them.

Democrats dismissed the latest plan as a rehash of already-rejected ideas.

"It's a public relations document, it's like the Contract (with) America; it's hard to make anything of it," Robert Reich, a liberal economist at University of California-Berkeley and former President Bill Clinton's labor secretary, said in an interview with McClatchy.

"If you take seriously their planks of cutting the deficit, balancing the budget, removing government . . . that is Herbert Hoover economics. And what's likely to happen, if they actually implement that, is a double dip (back into recession) or at best a continued very anemic recovery. There is no demand."

Nor is the Republican plan likely to change the dynamics of the congressional races. Republicans already are projected to have a good shot at regaining control of the House — they need a net gain of 39 seats — and an outside chance to win control of the Senate, where they need a 10-seat pickup.

"The agenda gives the candidates some talking points," said Merle Black, a prominent historian at Emory University in Atlanta, "but this election is largely a referendum on the Democrats and President Barack Obama."

The GOP document, which calls congressional Democrats and the Obama administration an "arrogant and out of touch government of self-appointed elites," isn't likely to sway moderate-leaning undecided or independent voters, several analysts said.

"It's designed to stoke up the tea party, connect with the tea party, to say, 'We're with you,' " said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who predicts a GOP gain of 47 House seats. "It's a base tactic. It's all about the base, including the tea party."

The tea party movement has helped insurgent, often little-known Republicans win GOP primaries in several states. Supporters, angered by Washington's ways, have helped topple establishment Republican Senate candidates in Delaware, Utah, Kentucky, Nevada and Alaska, led Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the GOP and helped underdog Carl Paladino beat former Rep. Rick Lazio for the New York Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Many Republicans have tried to compare Thursday's plan to the 1994 Contract with America. That plan, which also was rolled out about six weeks before the election, is credited with helping Republicans win control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

"They're trying to have history repeat itself," said Lee Miringoff, the director of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion. "It's a tip of the hat to the tea party movement and a hope that history repeats itself."

Times have changed, however, Black said. "It was a novel idea at the time," he said, "and it gave candidates specific points a lot of voters agreed with."

The same tactic has been tried repeatedly; Democrats had a "Six for 06" plan in 2006, which laid out their agenda, but few historians think that it helped the party regain control of Congress that year.

(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story.) ON THE WEB

2010 Pledge to America

1994 Contract with America

Health care law summary

House Republicans on Democratic economic plan

Democratic "recipe for recovery"

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