Having been accused of being the “Party of No,” House Republicans on Thursday published their long-awaited manifesto of what they would do if they were back in power. The 21-page “Pledge to America’’ is sweeping, but is short of detail on basic questions about reducing long-term deficits and speeding up the economic recovery. In many ways, it doesn’t measure up to the clarion call of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America” in 1994 or Ronald Reagan’s four principles in 1981.
The “Pledge,” unveiled by House Minority Leader John Boehner and other House GOP leaders in suburban Virginia today, makes clear that Republicans would reverse President Obama’s big initiatives, especially the new health care law, and that they would extend all of former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Boehner described the Pledge as "a new governing agenda, built by listening to the American people that offers a new way forward." But the manifesto offers few clues as to how the GOP would bolster the sagging economic recovery; how it would reduce today’s trillion-dollar deficits; or how it would grapple with the soaring long-run costs of Medicare and Social Security.
The Pledge in fact ignores a slew of ideas that have often been popular with conservatives. There is no mention of a flat tax or any other kind of tax reform. There is no mention of a line-item veto on spending bills. There isn’t even a reference to “earmarks,’’ the special provisions for pet spending projects.
“It is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity,’’ wrote Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger at Redstate.com. “But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high.”
House Republicans defended the plan, saying it is only an agenda for what they want to do this year.
“This is about the here and now, any time before the gavel falls,” said Rep. Michael Pence of Indiana, who is chairman of the House Republican Conference. “We intended to draft a governing agenda for this Congress, that we can do right now.”
The vagaries of the manifesto also reflected deep disagreements among GOP lawmakers about what message they wanted to send and how specific they wanted to be. Many wanted to avoid specifics, contending that Democratic lawmakers would jump on any details and attack them on the campaign trail. Lawmakers also disagreed about how much to focus on lower taxes and smaller government – top Tea Party themes – and conservative social causes like abortion and gay marriage. In the end, the Pledge included a call to prohibit federal funding for abortion – which is generally the case already – and only one mention of “traditional marriage.”
“There's a distinction in my mind between what's important and what's urgent,” Pence said of the Pledge's economic focus.
To be sure, the Pledge contains a few specifics. It calls for slashing most non-security discretionary spending back to the levels of 2008, which Republicans estimate would save $100 billion next year, and then imposing a “hard cap’’ on future spending growth. But Republicans offered no detail on which programs they would cut or how “hard” the future “cap’’ would be. Even if the cuts were identified and approved by Congress, the savings would be almost entirely offset by the Republicans’ plan to extend the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy.
More surprisingly, the plan offers no proposals on the government’s long-term fiscal nightmare – the soaring costs of Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs. It’s not as though the GOP hasn’t had ideas: Bush tried unsuccessfully to partly privatize Social Security. And the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has proposed a detailed “Roadmap’’ that calls for drastic cuts in Medicare over the next several decades.
“I am concerned that the Pledge doesn’t sufficiently attack the spending problem,” said R. Glenn Hubbard, former top economic adviser to President Bush and now dean of Columbia University’s business school. “The Republicans need to articulate a path toward a government of different size and scope.”
Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, acknowledged that the manifesto was short on detail. But he said Republicans could have been far more vague than they were, and still scored huge gains in November just by attacking Democrats over the poor state of the economy.
“At least they’re not sitting on their hands,’’ Mitchell said. “Republicans could have big gains just by criticizing Obama, and a lot of people thought that was just what they should do. I sat in on some of those meetings.”
The Pledge’s section on “job growth’’ consists essentially of negatives: prevent any of the Bush tax cuts from expiring; repeal the new health care law and any remaining spending under President Obama’s stimulus program; and cut back on regulation of business.
The one pro-active idea is to give small business owners an automatic deduction on 20 percent of their income. The plan doesn’t define what a “small business’’ is, but Republicans have in recent weeks defined it as any business income that people report on the personal tax returns. That would include profits from many mom-and-pop businesses, but it also includes vast amounts of income from investment partnerships, private equity funds, trust funds.
But for the most part, the House Republican plan assumes that government has little or no role to play in reviving the economy. But while conservative politicians have argued that the government’s stimulus and bailout programs were useless, many if not most mainstream economists contend that the pump-priming prevented a deep recession from becoming a full-fledged depression.
Alison Fraser, director of economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the Republican Pledges were very welcome first steps. “If I look at them cutting $100 billion in the first year, that’s a tough order,” Fraser said. “I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Spending is the problem, and by tackling spending you of course deal with the deficit.
But enacting those cuts would be almost as difficult for Republicans as it would be for Democrats. Republicans would protect more than 80 percent of the federal budget from cuts, roping off Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, homeland security and veterans programs.
As a result the $100 billion in cuts would require immediate cuts averaging 22 percent in all the domestic programs that receive annual appropriations from Congress: NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Internal Revenue Service and countless other agencies.
“This isn’t a details document,’’ said Fraser, at the Heritage Foundation. “But they’re setting a path for the right direction.”