100 Days That Shook the World: The Historical Significance of the Contract with America

Article excerpt

Big Government was consolidated in America in the First Hundred Days of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By promising that the House would enact the Contract With America in the First Hundred Days of the 104th Congress, Speaker Newt Gingrich deliberately invited the history books to compare the work of the House Republican leadership with the New Deal of FDR.

Policy Review asked nine students of American politics to assess the historic significance of Gingrich's First Hundred Days, and the principal achievements and errors of the House Republican leadership during this "rendezvous with destiny."

John J. Pitney, Jr.

At first glance, it seems that the House GOP's First Hundred Days compare badly with FDR's. Although all the items in the Contract With America reached the House floor, only two of them (congressional compliance and unfunded mandates) became law before the hundredth day. By contrast, FDR signed bushels of bills during the Hundred Days of 1933. His emergency banking measure went through introduction, passage, and signature on the very first day of the congressional session - - and in less than eight hours.

It is unfair, however, to judge today's House Republicans by the Roosevelt standard. Crisis is the great lubricant of the legislative process, and the economic calamities of FDR's early days briefly suspended Capitol Hill's normal friction. And odd as it may sound, many aspects of public life actually moved faster in 1933 than in 1995. Take justice, for instance. Shortly before FDR took office, a man named Giuseppe Zangara fired five shots at the president-elect, missing him but killing one person and wounding four others. Zangara was tried, convicted, and executed within 33 days. In the 1990s, jury selection alone can take longer than that, and capital offenders can stay out of the electric chair for years by filing endless habeas corpus petitions.

Government has become tangled in its own red tape -- which is precisely why the Republicans put so much emphasis on procedural reform. They started with the House itself, recognizing that the institution would work more efficiently with fewer committees and smaller staffs. The best symbol of their commitment to renewing Congress came with the congressional-compliance bill, which cleared both chambers faster than any peacetime domestic legislation since Roosevelt's banking bill in 1933. In other ways, the Republicans strove to make government leaner and less cumbersome. Proposals such as block grants would eliminate layers of bureaucracy and miles of red tape. And the GOP crime bill would restore rationality to the appeals process in capital cases, thereby ensuring swift justice for the Zangaras of the future.

House Republicans are pushing the federal government to match the pace of 62 years ago. Ironically, that is high praise.

John J. Pitney, Jr., an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the co-author of Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House.

William A. Rusher

The First Hundred Days of the new House Republican leaders will deserve that well-worn adjective "historic" even if relatively few of the measures listed in their Contract With America ever become law in a form they would recognize. For the central achievement of the First Hundred Days was to change the whole terrain and direction of American politics.

Last year, the most that could be conceived, let alone hoped for, in the field of tax reform was a modest reduction in the rate of income taxation. Today -- whether or not major changes occur in the first session of the 104th Congress -- the serious talk among congressional leaders is about imposing a flat tax, or even tearing up the tax code by the roots and replacing the income tax with a broad-based tax on consumption.

Similarly, "welfare reform" in 1994 meant, at best, doing a little nipping and tucking on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. …