March 14, 2010
Contract FROM America: Giving the People a Voice in CongressBy Daniel P. Crandall
In 1994, Newt Gingrich presented the "Contract with America." It was a "contract" from Republican politicians to voters concerning what legislative action the new majority would take in its first hundred days. In 2010, the People are preparing a "Contract from America," which establishes what the voters expect from their legislative representatives. The "Contract from America" is what the "Contract with America" should have been but wasn't.
The "Contract from America" (CFA) is a grassroots, bottom-up document created by hundreds of thousands of people who are part of the Tea Party protests and Glenn Beck's 912 Project. It began in September 2009 with TheContract.org, where individuals provided and debated thousands of ideas for this new "contract."
I had the opportunity to speak with Ryan Hecker, a Houston area Tea Party activist, full-time attorney, and father behind the Contract from America.
Hecker stated that the CFA "has been an idea I've had since the November 2008 elections." He felt that our elected representatives, especially among Republicans, "lost their legitimacy" as fiscal conservatives and proponents of limited government. Hecker believes that this document will be a strong step forward in obtaining "real economic conservative and good governance reform in Congress."
Hecker noted that what drives the people involved in putting the CFA together is "a desire to push and demand accountability" from our elected representatives.
CFA, at this point, is a work in progress. Online activists pared thousands of ideas down to twenty-one. I asked Hecker about the process by which the CFA came to be. "After narrowing the document down to twenty-one items, through a series of tedious surveys filled out by thousands of mostly tea party local coordinators and grassroots activists, the Tea Party Patriots enlisted sixteen scholars to write two-hundred-word statements in support of one of the twenty-one ideas." Hecker's fellow activists "are in the process of posting these statements on the website."
Currently, visitors to the CFA's website can debate and vote on these twenty-one ideas. Those behind the CFA are hard at work building a list of solid positions that activists can present at upcoming Tax Day Tea Party rallies across America.
Those familiar with Gingrich's "Contract with America" will note a significant difference between that document and the Tea Party Patriots' "Contract from America." Gingrich's document listed specific reforms intended to pass "on the first day of the 104th Congress." In addition, it listed several acts that Republicans brought to the House Floor "within the first 100 days."
The CFA does not list specific legislative acts, which follows from its grassroots nature. Instead, it is more akin to a list from voters telling their representatives and senators, as Hecker noted in our conversation, that "this is what we expect from you." Hecker added, however, that it would not be difficult to translate the "Contract from America" into specific legislation. Some, in fact, already exists.
Hecker noted that the first item in the CFA is a call to "begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike." Senator Jim DeMint and several others issued a statement on February 4, 2010 calling "on their colleagues to support a one-year earmark moratorium and a Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment."
Hecker also pointed out that Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) has endorsed a Spending Limit Amendment to the Constitution. This corresponds with the CFA's call for "a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending."
Some of the items listed in the CFA echo elements in Gingrich's '94 contract. The "Contract with America," for example, lists the "Citizen Legislature Act," which called for term limits, and the "Fiscal Responsibility Act," which called for a balanced budget amendment and line-item veto. The House of Representatives rejected the former, and the latter got through the Senate only with substantial changes, which were subsequently declared unconstitutional in Clinton v. City of New York. The CFA includes items calling for term limits and a balanced budget amendment. Should these make it through the CFA vetting process, what is gained by asking federal representatives and senators to sign on to these items today?
"This document," Hecker stated, "will give representatives and senators a legislative agenda and core set of priorities to follow in 2010. As it's grassroots-generated and bottom-up, I believe that this time around elected officials will be held to their promises. If they don't follow through, there will be many unhappy grassroots leaders ready to protest."
Using the reaction and controversy surrounding Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) and his attempt to make Congress simply clarify the $10B price tag on a bill to extend unemployment benefits and pay for other sundry items as an example, I asked Hecker if he is concerned that the CFA might not become a reality. Hecker responded,
"If economic conservatives take the House and Senate in 2010, they will have a mandate from the people to enact the legislative priorities in the CFA. Bunning stood alone, but hopefully when a majority of the House and Senate take united stands for economic conservatism, they will not face the same reaction."
When asked about the recent controversy concerning the national Tea Party convention, Hecker stated, "The infighting is a tragic development." While he acknowledged that these kinds of things are common in political movements, Hecker went on to express hope that Tea Party groups across the nation can "unify around the 'Contract from America.'"
Given the influence culture has on the political process -- that is, the ability that education, entertainment, media, and journalism have to squelch the concepts of limited, constitutional government, free-market economics, liberty, and personal responsibility -- one wonders how the CFA would stand up to the onslaught from these quarters. I asked Hecker his thoughts concerning the best tactics and strategy to overcome the cultural hurdles standing in the CFA's way.
"This is a very tough question," Hecker replied. "There may be some elements of the media who will make it their main priority to have the CFA fail. However, it will be very hard to attack the CFA as a 'partisan' or 'Astroturf' document. The document was created in the most transparent way possible from ideas submitted and vetted by average Americans. My focus in shepherding this initiative has been to develop a truly grassroots, unassailably crowd-sourced document."
During our conversation, I noted that several acts in the "Contract with America" passed. Those items that did pass seemed to have little if any impact on the growth and scope of government given today's state of affairs. Are the Tea Party Patriots concerned that the CFA will come and go with little to show for it? Hecker stated, "If the 'Contract from America' fades into the background, then the Tea Party movement fades."
What role does Tea Party Patriot Ryan Hecker see CFA playing in putting political power back in the people's hands, in contrast to the current state of affairs with regulations and mandates coming down from Washington, D.C. that the citizenry are obliged to follow?
"The CFA will give people a voice," says Hecker, "as this document belongs to them. The citizenry can tell politicians, 'You listen to us now.' The citizenry drafted this document, and I truly believe many politicians will sign the contract and listen to the people."