In bold letters at the bottom of their “Contract With America,” House Republicans issued a pugnacious challenge to the voters who had put them in charge of Congress last year: “If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.”
Thursday, GOP lawmakers began celebrating the end of the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, exhausted but exuberant about their ability to keep the compact they had made with voters last year.
Indeed, as they prepared to wrap up a few loose ends today before beginning a three-week Easter recess, the Republicans expressed confidence that American voters would not take them up on their challenge.
While the ultimate success of their conservative agenda could be blunted by the Senate, President Clinton or shifting public opinion, House Republicans who signed the contract before last November’s election legitimately could claim they had kept their word: Moving at the congressional equivalent of warp speed, they had brought all of the contract’s provisions to a floor vote before the 100-day deadline they had set for themselves.
Moreover, all the contract measures received House approval except one: a proposed constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms.
“It’s actually been quite a run,” said an exultant House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who will trumpet his party’s accomplishments and outline its future agenda in a nationally televised address scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. today.
“We said (to voters), we’ll have 10 major issues we’ll vote on,” Gingrich said in an interview broadcast by CNN Thursday. “We voted on all 10. We passed nine out of 10. I think that’s, frankly, a pretty tremendous achievement for the opening hundred days of a Congress.”
Yet even as Gingrich and other Republicans began toasting their 100-day achievements, they acknowledged they are about to enter a distinctly different phase of congressional action that will present even greater challenges than anything they have confronted so far.
For starters, only two contract proposals have actually become law: a bill curtailing Congress’ ability to impose “unfunded mandates” on the states, and legislation making the House and Senate subject to health, safety, labor and civil rights laws.
One high-priority objective, a balanced budget amendment, was killed in the Senate, whose Republican members did not affix their signatures to the Contract With America. Other contract bills, from welfare reform to tax relief, are expected to be rewritten or scaled back in the upper chamber. And President Clinton has indicated he stands ready to veto any bills that reach his desk in a form he considers unacceptable.
Even if much of the contract ultimately makes its way into the lawbooks, Republican leaders concede it will be difficult to fulfill the larger promises they have made - to shrink the federal government, erase a $200 billion budget deficit, and restore an ethic of hard work, religious observance and private charity to American society. And when House members return to work in early May, they will no longer have the script that kept such divisive issues as abortion and affirmative action off their agenda.
House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, described the “Contract With America” as a disciplining tool that allowed Republicans to “learn the mechanics (of congressional power) without having to be concerned with what is the agenda.” Without that discipline, Congress quickly could become more fractious and less productive.
That discipline has reaped a flurry of legislative victories in the House that has no recent precedent: In fewer than 60 legislative days, GOP forces - often joined by substantial numbers of Democrats - passed a spate of bills designed to transform the 10 basic provisions of the contract with America into the law of the land.