Republicans’ Halfhearted Pledge to America

Republicans offer to restore fiscal balance to the federal budget but neither Democrats nor social conservatives are convinced.

In a move reminiscent of the “Contract with America” which Republicans introduced six weeks before the 1994 midterm elections, the opposition this week offered a “Pledge to America” — a similar, if larger series of campaign promises, explicitly framed as an alternative to the “big government” policies of the ruling party.

The initiative, which is spearheaded by House Minority Leader John Boehner as well as Congressmen Eric Cantor of Virginia, Mike Pence of Indiana and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, features some thirty proposals, including a government hiring freeze, caps on domestic spending accounts, the extension of Bush era tax cuts and a promise to “repeal and replace” the health-care reform bill that was enacted by Congress in March.

The plan seems an effort on the part of a new generation of Republican leadership to give political meaning to the powerful wave of anti-government resentment that inspires the Tea Party movement. The “Pledge to America” document is constitutionally conservative and includes a notable provision which demands future bills to state explicitly from which article of the Constitution they derive legitimacy.

Minority Leader Boehner, who is likely to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House this fall if Republicans indeed manage to secure a majority in that chamber, described the document as testimony to a “new governing agenda, built by listening to the people” on Thursday. It “offers plans to create jobs, cut spending, and put power where it belongs — in the hands of the people.”

The notion is hardly new but as Congressman Ryan likes to stress, the Pledge is not supposed to “reinvent” but to “reclaim” America. Social conservatives have been critical though, complaining that traditional values and positions on issues as abortion and gay marriage are largely absent from the document.

Aside from promises to rein in spending, repeal Obamacare and reform the government-sponsored mortgage entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which were unmentioned in the financial reform bill hammered out by Democratic lawmakers in June, the document is vague on details. The future and sustainability of entitlement programs as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security which, beside defense, constitute the largest expenditures of the federal government, are hardly addressed.

Ryan, whose “Roadmap for America’s Future” has been hailed by libertarians and fiscal conservatives as an extensive plan to solve America’s long-term budget woes, does have fresh ideas. He would radically reform the federal tax system, largely privatize Social Security for Americans under the age of 55 and dismantle Medicare as it currently exists during a period of ten years to replace it with a voucher system. “Rather than depending on government for your retirement and health security, I propose to empower people to become much more self dependent for such things in life,” he explained last year.

The “Pledge to America” doesn’t contain similarly bold policy solutions. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from scaremongering, threatening that Republicans would take away people’s health insurance and pensions in order to finance tax cuts for the rich.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs characterized the document as “the same litany that got us into this mess — tax cuts for the rich that costs millions of dollars.” Speaker Pelosi’s office was all the more ferocious, alleging that “Republicans are pledging to ship jobs overseas; blow a $700 billion hole in the deficit to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires, turn Social Security from a guaranteed benefit into a guaranteed gamble, once again subject American families to the recklessness of Wall Street and take away patients’ rights.”