Thursday, Reince Priebus, the Dickensian-named Republican Party chairman, gave what he billed as a major address on “Principles for American Renewal.”
No one can accuse our political class of opposing recycling: amid paeans to the Constitution, families, and maximizing freedom, Priebus wound through nine principles, six examples, and about 3,500 other units of verbiage that easily could have been lifted from the Dole-for-President campaign.
The performance brought to mind the vapid and sub-grammatical motto of Jebediah Springfield, fictional town father in Fox’s The Simpsons: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Twenty years ago, the little-known House minority whip, Newt Gingrich, stood on the steps of the Capitol with scores of congressmen and candidates to announce the Contract With America. The pact’s bold ideas helped make the 1994 midterms a wave election and paved the way for welfare reform, balanced budgets, tax cuts, and stronger economic growth.
Today, the conservatives again need new, bold, positive ideas. They can’t count on congressional bosses who have decided to play it safe. Those leaders believe that ObamaCare, scandals, foreign disasters, and voter fatigue will drag down the liberals this November.
This theory may be true, but by running an idea-free campaign, conservatives won’t have a clear mandate if they win. Furthermore, they will sacrifice several tossup congressional seats where liberals can eke out victory with their money advantage.
A new Contract-like campaign could leverage voter discontent and advocate commonsense economic and social policies to help the beleaguered middle class. Here are nine suggestions:
1. Conservatives should vow that a Congress, under what we hope will be new leadership, will pass revenue-neutral tax reform. Americans disagree over taxation and the scope of government, but agree that the tax code is a job-killing mess. Eliminating most deductions and simplifying taxes to three or four lower rates is a winning issue that will boost the economy.
2. Cut government payroll outside of the military -- including off-the-books contractors. According to the Labor Department, federal bureaucrats’ pay and benefits have surpassed those of average Americans—despite cushy jobs for life. The government hasn’t tightened its belt even as private enterprise has been forced to slim down in the Obama economy. A new Congress should vote to cut head count and benefits 10% across federal agencies.
3. Recognize that a growing number of American workers -- and potential conservatives -- are independent contractors. These contractors face an onerous self-employment tax on top of income tax. Let’s eliminate this penalty and make up the lost revenue with a luxury tax on the gold-plated pension funds that liberals have created for unionized government bureaucrats.
4. Americans waste an average of 38 hours per year in traffic jams according to researchers at Texas A&M. Most U.S. airports are also in terrible shape. Antiquated laws and regulations that needlessly elevate the cost of new infrastructure are to blame. The worst offender is the Davis-Bacon law. Originally passed in part to suppress black labor, the law today is used by unions to eliminate the cost advantages of their non-union competitors. A study by the Beacon Hill Institute estimated that Davis-Bacon requirements increase the cost of infrastructure-related labor by 22% over the market rate. The law should go.
5. Let’s limit the power of private-sector unions and curb rent-seeking government unions. Twenty-four states have banned forced unionism with right-to-work laws, and they exhibit more economic growth than the rest. Let’s make right-to-work a federal policy and also enact a nationwide ban to prevent new government employees from joining unions that rip off taxpayers and support ever-larger government.
Culturally, a new Contract-like pledge can also define conservatives favorably with middle-class Americans. But conservatives need to frame these issues to their advantage, not fall victim to the liberals’ “culture war” traps.
6. Good schools are fundamental to a positive culture. To improve them, the sixth part of a new conservative Contract could be a federal requirement giving parents choice in schools combined with a ban on tenure. Parents should be allowed to move their children out of failing schools and principals should be allowed to reward teachers for merit instead of longevity.
7. The government should pragmatically help women turn to adoption as an alternative to abortion. There is a middle ground on this issue. Shifting government funding away from abortion-providers could pay for healthcare for women who opt to forgo abortion and make dreams come true for the long backlog of couples who want to adopt.
8. We should defend our great Western culture by banning radical Islamists from immigrating to, seeking asylum in, or visiting the United States. Let’s welcome Muslims who support the rule of law and the American way; and keep violent radicals out. Let’s also yank citizenship from those who join with violent jihadists abroad.
9. Finally, a conservative Congress should force our president to address the obviously unsecured border. It can be hard for Congress to compel executive branch agencies to do their jobs, but Congress can help states that want to defend themselves from being swamped by any future wave of illegals. Send the president a bill allowing states to deport aliens charged with felonies directly—without the need for a federal permission slip.
Of course, the president would likely veto all of these popular, moderate reforms. Let him.
Senator Harry Reid set the precedent for limiting filibusters. A Congress under new management should follow suit, sending popular measures to the White House on simple-majority votes. Let the liberals explain to the American people why they oppose reform.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).