Taking the Initiative: Leadership Agendas in Congress and the "Contract with America"

By John B. Bader | Go to book overview

Preface

On September 27, 1994, over three hundred Republican candidates for the House of Representatives, both incumbents and challengers, gathered on the west side of the U.S. Capitol Building. With flags fluttering under an intensely blue sky and cameras recording each choreographed moment, party leaders such as Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia began a series of exhortative and enthusiastic speeches. The large group of women and men then walked confidently to a table in groups of four to sign a document ambitiously called the "Contract with America." Candidates signing this contract pledged to address a ten-point agenda in the first one hundred days of a Congress led by a Republican majority.

That agenda, which included such items as a balanced budget amendment and term limits for members of Congress, quickly became the focus of much derision in Washington. Democrats denounced the Contract as political pandering and as policy regression to the Reagan era. Policy analysts quickly calculated the collective costs of the Contract and decried the resulting budget deficits. Strategists in Bill Clinton's White House gleefully seized on the Contract as a major Republican blunder and attempted to exploit its broad promises in the final weeks of the midterm elections.

But those elections produced shocking results. For the first time in over forty years, voters gave the House majority to the Republican Party. The Senate went Republican as well. Republican leaders in the House quickly took credit for the extraordinary shift in political power. House whip Newt Gingrich had worked aggressively for other Republican candidates and had made the "Contract with America" central to his campaign to take the House. Analysts will long debate whether voters understood or endorsed the Contract, no doubt, but the 1994 election appeared to give congressional Republicans a mandate to push their agenda. In the days and months that followed that election, the Contract with America became a very familiar and much-discussed feature of the American political landscape. It significantly shaped the actions of the 104th Congress, particularly in the first few months, and may have a policy legacy extending far into the future.

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