NEW YORK – Instead of a birthday cake for the Contract with America's (search) 10th anniversary, Republicans at their national convention have given it a cold shoulder.
The cavalcade of speakers addressing this week's GOP gathering has not mentioned the campaign manifesto that House Republicans used in 1994 to end 40 years as the chamber's minority party. Republicans captured the Senate as well but did not use the contract.
"This convention is about the future. The contract is about the past," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (search), R-Ga., the driving force behind the contract, who said he agrees that it should be ignored this week.
A decade ago, House Republicans rallied behind the collage of poll-tested promises to do everything from applying all laws to Congress to amending the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget.
When they surprised everyone including themselves by capturing the chamber, the contract became their legislative agenda and guiding philosophical light, although with mixed results.
"It was a bit of a gimmick, but it was a gimmick that worked," said Stephen Moore, a one-time GOP House aide who is now president of the conservative Club for Growth (search).
Yet the contract still elicits polarizing memories that Republicans have little interest in reviving during this year's campaign. Those include government shutdowns forced by bitter budget battles with President Clinton; GOP efforts to cull savings from popular programs like Medicare; and even Gingrich himself, the firebrand who came to personify those fights.
In addition, the times have changed. Worries over terrorism, war with Iraq and an uncertain jobs picture have long since trumped the earlier era's public clamor for balancing the budget, imposing term limits on lawmakers and revamping welfare.
"I'd be surprised," Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (search), a top House GOP aide in the mid-1990s, said when asked whether convention speakers would recall the contract. "It's 10 years old."
Though the contract helped galvanize conservatives, House Republicans say it was just one factor in their historic 54-seat pickup. More than 350 of their candidates signed the document on Sept. 27, 1994.
That year's political winds were already blowing against majority Democrats. There was widespread dislike for Congress, lingering public distaste for scandals involving the House bank and post office, and unhappiness over Clinton's abandoned plan for health care.
"The anger was out there, and we were going to gain seats," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who helped formulate the strategy. "We thought we had to show what we were for to take the majority."
Most Democrats say their election debacle that year was a rejection of their party, not an endorsement of the GOP or the contract. They note that polls then showed no more than 30 percent of voters had even heard of the document.
"It's an anniversary that I think will go unnoticed by an overwhelming majority of Americans," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., No. 2 House Democratic leader.
When the new 104th Congress convened on Jan. 4, 1995, Republicans used a grueling 14 1/2-hour day to deliver their first promise. Led by Gingrich, the new speaker, and powered by 73 GOP freshmen, they rammed through changes in how Congress does its business, including limiting the terms of committee chairmen and requiring three-fifths majorities for tax increases.
Within the next 100 days, the House had plowed through the rest of the contract's agenda, approving bills revamping welfare and cutting taxes, and letting the president veto individual items in spending bills. Only a bill clamping term limits on lawmakers was rejected by the House, a measure opposed by many senior Republicans including then No. 3 GOP leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
Then the realities of politics took hold, including the need to push bills through the Republican-run but more moderate Senate and get Clinton's signature. Democrats seized on the contract's excesses — such as the unpopular cuts needed for promised budget savings — to demonize it, labeling it the Contract on America.
Ten years later, Republicans have won frequent tax cuts, bigger defense budgets and tougher anti-crime laws. Most of the changes in House rules remain in effect, though the eight-year limit on the speaker's term has been rolled back.
A welfare overhaul was enacted in 1996, though in a watered-down version. The balanced budget constitutional amendment never passed the Senate, the line-item veto became law but was struck down by the Supreme Court, and tort reform has yet to clear Congress.
Despite a law curbing unfunded mandates, President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law is among several federal requirements the states must finance.
And despite the contract's bow to fiscal responsibility and smaller government, initial spending cuts and a four-year return to federal surpluses have been followed by a Medicare expansion, bigger spending and the largest budget deficits ever.
"Charitably, you'd have to say the results were mixed," said Allan J. Lichtmann, a political historian at American University.