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Joe Conason: Return of the ‘Contract with America’

The Republican plan would only repeat the misconduct and fakery of the 1990s

The Republicans have announced the forthcoming release of the “Contract From America” — a set of legislative proposals presumably intended to replicate the “Contract with America” used by their leaders in the historic 1994 midterm when they won control of both houses of Congress.

Joe Conason
Joe Conason

The question immediately raised by this news is why Rep. John Boehner and his colleagues would remind voters of their political descent from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, and the legacy of misconduct, fakery and error that they represent.

They may well believe that most Americans won’t remember what Republicans actually did when they regained control of Congress for the first time in decades. Certainly amnesia is a perennial pathology in U.S. politics. But anyone who listens closely to what the Republicans are saying this year should be able to detect the clues suggesting that the more they claim to have changed, the more they remain the same.

During the years of the Gingrich speakership, the most significant activity undertaken by Congress was a long series of investigations of President Bill Clinton’s White House, the Clinton Cabinet, the Democratic Party and anyone remotely associated with the president. Although the Republicans had promised back then to pass the various elements of the Contract With America, the investigative war against the Clintons is what they spent most of their time and effort preparing.

The result was expensive but unedifying, as congressional committees issued thousands of subpoenas seeking to expose such pressing issues as the alleged misuse of the Clinton family’s Christmas card list and rumors of cocaine trafficking at a rural Arkansas airport. These phony probes cost millions of dollars and required hundreds of hours of public hearings, brought to the American people courtesy of Republican leaders who had vowed to curb waste and abuse.

Now the politicians who may take control of important U.S. House committees next year are poised to repeat the same cartoon version of government. Once again, public funds and legislative attention will be devoted to the scourging of federal officers and agencies, for the sole purpose of advancing Republican political fortunes.

They have promised to investigate the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the stimulus program and the implementation of health-care reform. No doubt they will find ways to address other obsessions of their base, including the New Black Panther Party and the president’s Kenyan heritage. What they will not do is restore full employment, improve health, education and the environment, or repair the nation’s balance sheet.

What is new this year is the peculiar kookiness of the Republican candidates, especially those associated with the Tea Party. The party’s new Senate candidate in Delaware, for instance, says she “dabbled in witchcraft” as a teenager. That is perfectly appropriate for a party that seeks to bring back voodoo economics — promising to achieve a balanced budget at the same time they insist on permanent tax cuts for the wealthy that will cost at least $2 trillion.

Americans who worry about jobs and deficits should recall the searing congressional debate of 1993, when President Clinton passed his first budget without a single Republican vote. The same figures attacking President Barack Obama now — from Gingrich to Boehner — blasted Clinton for passing “the biggest tax increase in history” and predicted a horrific recession, along with the end of the American way of life.

Instead, the Clinton budget, which raised rates for the wealthiest taxpayers, led to the longest peacetime expansion in history, a series of federal surpluses, and the elevation of working and poor families into the middle class. It was the Bush administration and the Republican Congress that squandered the surplus with lavish tax cuts, pork spending and unnecessary war.

That voters are disappointed by the pace of improvement since the 2008 election is understandable. That they would want to repeat the political experience of the 1990s is mystifying.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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