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Gary D. Bass, Ph.D. Headshot

GOP 'Pledge' Is Simply a Way of Shutting Down a Large Part of Government

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As Yogi Berra's redundant saying goes, "It's déjà vu all over again." Back in 1994, congressional Republicans unveiled what they called the "Contract with America." The Contract was chock-full of policy proposals intended to shrink the size of government, kneecap agencies' ability to protect the public, and decrease the burden on taxpayers, especially the rich.

Fast-forward to 2010, and we have John Boehner and Friends' "Pledge to America." The Pledge, cobbled together from comments from various forums and sprinkled with a variety of items from a number of conservative wish lists, contains some similar policy goals, though it appears to be far more driven by an angry, anti-government sentiment than the Contract with America was. Moreover, the Contract provided detailed descriptions of proposals; the Pledge is a set of bullet points with little detail. One conservative critic called it "pablum" in an article in the Washington Post.

Beyond the ultra-negative, unconstructive spin that opens the document, the Pledge contains what may be serious policy items buried within the bullet points. These include budget-busting tax cuts, spending cuts that would further shortchange Americans most in need, and a proposal that attempts to slow down and possibly stop public protections.

In the Pledge, Boehner and Friends propose to make the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent and add other tax breaks, a move that would cost the federal treasury trillions of dollars and would cause the national debt to balloon to unprecedented levels. To call this tax proposal fiscally unsound would be an understatement.

Rather than using the money for tax breaks for those who don't need them, we should use those funds to create jobs, protect Social Security, and begin to pay down the debt.

Paired with their deficit-bloating tax cut ideas are massive spending cuts intended to "starve the beast" or "drown government in a bathtub." While this manifesto's rhetoric may cater to the far right, it certainly does not provide a meaningful solution to long-term structural deficits. For example, there is no mention of what Boehner and Friends will do on costly entitlement programs or on outlandish tax breaks and other subsidies to powerful special interests. Oh, there is the hortatory statement that they will require "a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid" and prevent "the expansion of unfunded liabilities," but what does that mean? How will they do those things? The answers don't appear in the Pledge.

Instead, they focus on the smallest part of the budget problem - discretionary spending. There are numerous promises to cut non-defense spending, freeze non-security hires in the government, and sunset government programs. Showing some compassion (or reaction to poll-tested warnings), they may not cut programs serving "seniors, veterans, and our troops," but there are no protections for others hit hard by the economy, such as those without jobs.

Our country is already faced with a crumbling national infrastructure and a vast array of unmet human needs. Furthermore, many key agencies whose job it is to protect the public - including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration - have been chronically underfunded and understaffed for decades, and the results have been devastating for many Americans. That any member of Congress would propose legislation with even further cuts to discretionary spending in the face of disasters like the BP oil spill and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia is appalling. That anyone would think, in the face of its track record, that private industry will pick up the slack and effectively police itself while safeguarding the public is patently absurd.

That last idea, that corporations can and will correct all market failures, despite reams of evidence to the contrary, may partially drive what may be the most irresponsible legislative proposal contained within the Pledge. Couched in spin-heavy terms of "reducing economic uncertainty," Boehner and Friends want to require every federal agency to submit to Congress for approval any rulemaking that would have an impact of $100 million or more. A bill to implement just such a proposal was recently introduced in the Senate.

Federal agencies already suffer from "paralysis by analysis," as a chart developed by OMB Watch clearly illustrates. Even in the face of pressing problems like tainted food, contaminated water, poisoned toys, dangerously defective products, polluted air, mine collapses, and workplace injuries and deaths, agencies are required to jump through hoop after hoop in order to protect the public. To impose even greater burdens on these agencies does nothing to safeguard the American people; indeed, the Pledge's proposal would further constrain agencies' ability to fulfill their missions and would result in endangering public health and safety. This is not good government.

The anti-regulatory proposal in the Pledge suffers from further weaknesses. For example, far from stifling job growth or creating "economic uncertainty," when formulated and implemented properly, public protections can actually enhance economic opportunity, foster competition, and encourage innovation, technological and otherwise, all of which can lead to more jobs.

Additionally, adding this review-and-approval requirement could conflict with mandates Congress imposed on agencies through laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Those statues and others are clear: the primary mission of agencies implementing those laws is to protect the public (and in some cases, the environment), and public health and safety are the primary (and sometimes, the only) consideration that agencies must take into account.

Furthermore, the congressional approval requirement in the Pledge could also run afoul of the separation of powers requirement in the U.S. Constitution. While oversight of agency activity is a "check" provided to Congress, formulating and approving agency rules are clearly executive branch functions under Article II. If the Pledge and its backers are serious about every piece of legislation having a clear line of constitutional authority, it's puzzling that they would propose a bill whose very premise seems to violate the Constitution.

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. This proposal to "rein in the red tape factory" is simply a way of shutting down a large part of government. Congress can't even get 12 appropriations bills done each year. How will it approve 50 to 100 major regulations each year? It won't - and that would mean no new public protections for the American people.

Combined with the legislative proposal to sunset federal programs, it will be very hard, if not impossible, to develop rules covering everything from civil rights to environmental quality, from worker safety to consumer protections designed to safeguard people like you and me.

This isn't to say that every proposal in the Pledge is a bad one. Indeed, requiring members of Congress to adhere to the Constitution when drafting and introducing legislation is a sound idea if implemented in an open and nonpartisan way. Likewise, further reducing waste, fraud, and abuse within agencies, especially those that heavily outsource their work at great cost to the taxpayer, is an admirable goal if done in a fully transparent, nonpartisan fashion.

However, the Pledge is generally unbalanced. The short-sighted, irresponsible proposals far outweigh the good ones. The Pledge is not simply an unfortunate return to the bad old days of government on behalf of special interests rather than the public interest; it is a reckless step toward undermining the very foundation of our government. The potential results would be, simply put, disastrous for the nation and its people.

Check out OMB Watch's more in-depth analysis of the Pledge and its proposals.