Republican ‘Pledge’ Includes Few New Ideas

Posted September 22, 2010 at 4:26pm

Updated: 7:55 p.m.

After months of gathering input, House Republicans will finally unveil a new governing agenda Thursday morning. But it includes little that hasn’t already appeared in numerous Republican leadership talking points over the past two years.

GOP leaders dubbed it “A Pledge to America.” A draft of the document obtained by Roll Call emphasizes shrinking the federal government as a way to lead the country back to prosperity while lightly touching on divisive social issues.

“The need for urgent action to repair our economy and reclaim our government for the people cannot be overstated,” the pledge reads. “With this document, we pledge to dedicate ourselves to the task of reconnecting our highest aspirations to the permanent truths of our founding by keeping faith with the values our nation was founded on, the principles we stand for, and the priorities of our people. This is our Pledge to America.”

The 21-page agenda keeps its focus on reining in spending and extending all tax cuts, but it also includes proposals such as opposing funding to implement the new health care law, rolling back spending to 2008 levels, canceling unspent stimulus spending and freezing hiring for nonsecurity federal employees.

The document also commits to holding weekly votes to cut spending, ending the Troubled Asset Relief Program and capping discretionary federal spending.

The agenda promises that Republicans will clamp down on new federal mandates and force Congress to tighten its own belt “significantly.”

But the document shies away from bolder items advocated by conservatives, such as a specific pledge to eliminate the budget deficit or prohibit earmarks.

Some conservatives had been advocating a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which was a part of the original GOP “Contract With America” in 1994, and either a ban or a major overhaul of earmarks.

The only mention of earmarks in the draft document is a plank opposing including them in troop-funding bills.

The document says Republicans would cut spending by more than $100 billion in the first year to put the government on a “path” to balance the budget and pay down the debt. But even a $100 billion spending cut would not make much of a dent in deficits that now exceed $1 trillion, particularly if all of the Bush-era tax cuts are extended as well.

The GOP agenda also does not include plans to cut future spending on Medicare or Social Security, like the “Roadmap” proposal authored by House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Instead, it commits to “make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations.”

The plan also does not include any specific proposals on energy beyond opposing Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal and encouraging domestic energy production.

The agenda demonstrates the difficult balance the GOP faces with its traditional base of social conservatives.

Only a few sentences in the document detail the GOP’s social agenda. It affirms support for “traditional marriage” but does not explicitly mention same-sex marriage or other controversial gay rights issues. And it includes just one anti-abortion plank — a commitment to permanently end federal funding for abortions.

The agenda also includes a provision backing state and local enforcement of immigration laws but does not include more controversial proposals such as ending automatic citizenship for children born in the United States.

Republicans have struggled to appease the socially conservative wing of the party without hurting the party’s appeal to crossover voters and independents who are more concerned about the economy.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, created a website specifically to pressure Republicans to include anti-abortion language in the agenda, saying there was a concern that Republican leaders would be too timid and leave out social issues.

“The subtext would be that social issues would hurt Republicans, but that’s not bearing out on the ground,” she said.

She said there is broad agreement even among social conservatives that economic issues should take precedence given the state of the economy, but it would be a mistake not to include a significant social agenda, including opposition to abortions and gay marriage.

Republicans began putting the agenda together last May by launching the America Speaking Out website and town hall series. The website allowed citizens to offer their ideas and have them voted on by other visitors to the site.

But many of the items have been part of the GOP’s agenda for the past two years. For example, the national security section of the agenda includes provisions from a bill that bars the administration from transferring terrorist detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to any state without approval from that state’s governor and legislature.

The same language was also included in the Republican Solutions Handbook released in September 2009.

Several of the provisions for regulatory reform, such as privatizing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, come from a bill introduced in July 2009 by House Financial Services ranking member Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.).

On immigration reform, Republicans reference a bill introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) in April that allows border agents to patrol public lands regardless of the environmental restrictions on the area.

The appearance of recycled ideas in the agenda didn’t surprise many on and off the Hill.

Several Republican lobbyists downplayed the importance of the agenda the day before its release, saying they weren’t expecting anything new.

Democrats sought to portray the document as nothing more than a rewrite of the agenda of President George W. Bush.

“Republicans want to return to the same failed economic policies that hurt millions of American and threatened our economy,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Democrats will protect Social Security, give tax cuts to the middle class and help the middle class through our ‘Make It in America’ manufacturing strategy.”

But Republican Members dismissed these criticisms.

“I think it’s excellent. … I think it’s more substantive than the contract ever was,” Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.) said. “I think it is very important, No. 1, to check the box, eliminate the argument that we are the ‘party of no.’ … It takes the pressure off of us and puts it back on them.”