House Republicans will “fight to renew the drive for a smaller, less costly, and more accountable government,” according to their new “A Pledge to America,” a 45-page governing document announced on Sept. 23 that is available at www.gop.gov/indepth/pledge. The Pledge contains the outlines of legislative proposals covering five themes:

  • Create jobs, end “economic uncertainty,” and make America more competitive
  • Stop “out-of-control” spending and cut the size of government
  • Repeal and replace the new health care law
  • Reform Congress and “restore trust”
  • Keep our “nation secure at home and abroad,” which includes immigration and national security

The document starts with a preamble containing five pledges that the House GOP will follow:

  1. Strict Constructionism. House Republicans will “honor the original intent” of “the Constitution as constructed by its framers…” A key element is honoring the intent of the Tenth Amendment, which says all powers not given to the federal government and not prohibited by the Constitution are reserved to the states or the people. This emphasis on federalism derives from long-held conservative views of limiting the role of the federal government and devolving powers to the states.

    The Pledge seems to intend to create tension between the Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) and the Tenth Amendment. Congress has relied on the Commerce Clause to pass civil rights laws, environmental and worker protections, sex offender laws, and much more. It would appear the Pledge, like its predecessor, the Contract with America, wants to limit congressional use of the Commerce Clause and put greater emphasis on the Tenth Amendment. During the Contract with America, the emphasis was on mandates imposed by the federal government on the states. The Pledge appears to be broadening the focus.

  2. Conservative Policies. The Pledge promises policies that “promote greater liberty, wider opportunity, a robust defense, and national economic prosperity.” The legislation discussed in the Pledge aligns with smaller government: less taxes and spending, less regulation, and ending or sunsetting programs.

  3. Conservative Values. Although the Pledge lacks details, the preamble promises “to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.” The proposals within the Pledge do not discuss these social issues with the exception of abortion. The Pledge promises to pass the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits government funding of abortion including through insurance subsidies. It also promises to put into law “conscience protections” for health care providers. Although the Pledge does not describe the “conscience protections” that would be put into law, President Bush put in place a rule shortly before he left office that would make federal funding contingent on requiring health care providers to certify they allowed their employees to withhold services on the basis of religious or moral grounds. Presumably, the Pledge's legislation would follow this model.

  4. Make Government Transparent and Honest. The Pledge includes a promise to make government more transparent, “careful in its stewardship, and honest in its dealings.” The only concrete transparency promise is to publish bills online “for at least three days” before voting on them. There are several proposals to limit federal spending and change the legislative process to make it easier to cut spending.

  5. A Better America. The final promise is a general principle to “uphold the purpose and promise of a better America…” The Pledge's authors argue that the “blessings of our liberty buoy the hopes of mankind.”

This analysis provides a detailed examination of the legislative proposals contained in the Pledge, covering three topics: proposals that affect regulations, tax and budget proposals, and transparency and accountability proposals. The Pledge is very different than the 1994 Contract with America, in which House Republicans presented a list of eight rules changes they would immediately make to House operations, followed by ten bills they would pass within the first 100 days.

The Contract provided detailed information on the legislative agenda for 1993, whereas the Pledge provides more of a guiding philosophy for how House Republicans will govern in 2011 and beyond. The Pledge places an emphasis on downsizing government by freezing spending, lowering taxes, abolishing programs and agencies through sunsets, and eliminating major government regulations by requiring a cumbersome approval process that requires an affirmative congressional vote on each new significant rulemaking. The Contract, by comparison, was aimed more at procedural changes, such as changing the way regulations are reviewed in agencies, placing a cap on the cost of regulation, and passing a constitutional balanced budget amendment.

Since the Pledge has been released, House Republicans have been clear that the document is intended to provide a governing path and is not limited to simply what is laid out in the Pledge. Several have spoken about even more controversial legislation, including a constitutional amendment limiting federal spending to one-fifth the size of the economy, a new crackdown on illegal immigration, and a parental notification bill for teen abortions. The Pledge is a controversial, if not highly polarizing, governing document. If pursued, the Pledge will lead to even more gridlock in government, which, in the end, would reinforce the objectives sought by the Pledge itself.


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Read OMB Watch's Analysis of A Pledge to America [PDF]