- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

Ten years ago, under blue skies on the back steps of the U.S. Capitol, 367 Republican members of the House of Representatives and candidates pledged to “restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.”

Thus, on Sept. 27, 1994, the Contract With America was born. Republicans used it to launch big ideas into the election year debate — ideas like a balanced budget, welfare reform, congressional reform, and limits on lawsuit abuse.

The Contract nationalized the election and turned Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics is local” on its head. We promised America that day: “If we break this Contract, throw us out.”

When the Contract was presented, the media reacted with predictable disdain and doubt. Pundits parroted the O’Neill adage that “all politics is local” — a cynical way to imply Americans care more about highway pork and pancake breakfasts than detailed visions for the country. Even on policy, editorials attacked the Contract as “anti-poor” and “fiscally irresponsible,” and Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos said, “I’ll match our record vs. their Contract any day.” The Democratic National Committee launched negative ads, darkly saying the Contract would “return us to the Reagan years.” I wish the DNC ran ads about the Reagan years every election.

Of course, in state after state, people voted for overwhelmingly for the Contract With America. Newt Gingrich estimated these ideas mobilized 9 million new voters in the 1994 elections. In the end, Republicans gained 52 seats and ended four decades of Democratic control of the House of Representatives.

As promised, the new Republican House brought all 10 items in the Contract to a vote in the first 100 days. We imposed term limits for House Committee chairmanships and forced Congress to follow the labor laws it imposes on everyone else. The federal budget was cut by 3 percent in the first two years and balanced in less than four. Most importantly, we passed real welfare reform and ended the welfare entitlement.

The Contract’s welfare reform emphasized work and personal responsibility, which have cut caseloads in half and liberated millions from the destructive cycle of dependency.

The Republican House was not able to pass all the Contract into law, mostly due to obstructionism in the Senate and by President Clinton. But congressional Republicans fulfilled the Contract, and were able to run on a new slogan in 1996: “Promises made, promises kept.” The American public confirmed its endorsement of limited government by voting in another Republican majority, marking the first time Republicans held onto back-to-back majorities in Congress since 1928.

Today, after 10 years, the Contract’s success sets the scene for conservatives to present another platform of big, bold ideas to move the nation forward. President Bush began this dialogue with his recent call for creating an “Ownership Society.” Basic tax reform, tort reform and Social Security personal retirement accounts are the big, bold ideas to again create cohesion and a unified agenda for congressional Republicans.

Indeed, no bigger opportunity confronts us than transforming the current Social Security system into a system of personal accounts owned and controlled by individual taxpayers, not the government. Big accounts — at least half of the current payroll tax — can solve the system’s looming financial meltdown and protect current retirees’ benefits without tax increases.

Like the Contract in 1994, in 2004 Social Security reform also engages new voters in the political process, including younger voters, African-Americans and Hispanics, all of whom get especially bad deals from the current system. Let’s create genuine retirement security by letting every working taxpayer build a nest egg and a stake in future U.S. economic growth.

The Contract With America demonstrated that a clear, principled agenda articulated directly to voters can create a powerful political and legislative force for change. As we look back upon the enduring success of the Contract after a full decade, the road forward becomes clear. If we seize them, the bold ideas of the “Ownership Society” are ready to spark the next conservative leap forward.

Dick Armey, former Republican House majority leader, is co-chairman of FreedomWorks, a grass-roots organization for lower taxes, less government and greater economic growth and freedom for all.

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