Tracking Republican promises with our new GOP Pledge-O-Meter
Standing in front of stacks of wood at a Virginia lumberyard in September, a group of Republican House leaders -- their sleeves rolled up for effect -- formally unveiled their "new governing agenda" called the Pledge to America. House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, promised that voters who supported GOP candidates in the election would be rewarded with a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.
On Election Day, the Republicans gained 63 seats and control of the U.S. House. Democrats still control the Senate, but as the recent tax deal has shown, Republicans again have the clout in Washington to get things done.
So what exactly did Republicans promise in their speeches and in the Pledge? And can they deliver?
After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, PolitiFact launched the Obameter, a unique project to track the 500-plus promises Obama made during his campaign. We rate their progress as In the Works or Stalled, and then whether they are Kept, Broken or a Compromise.
Now, PolitiFact brings you the GOP Pledge-O-Meter.
Like the Republican leaders at the press conference, we"ve rolled up our sleeves, and we pledge to follow and rate more than 50 campaign promises made by GOP leaders, most of them from the Pledge to America.
Just as we rate Obama"s promises kept only when they were passed by Congress and signed into law, we will rate Republican promises not just on whether they pass the House, but whether they are ultimately enacted.
A wide range of promises
After two years of Democratic control, the Republicans are promising as much un-doing as doing.
Undoing the health care bill. Undoing the stimulus. Undoing TARP. And undoing the growth in government spending.
"Our government has failed us," said the Pledge"s primary author, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, at the lumberyard press conference. "From the billion-dollar bailouts to the stimulus package that failed to stimulate to the government takeover of health care -- you cried 'Stop!' "
There"s one big thing Republicans have promised not to undo: the Bush tax cuts. Republican leaders say that excessive taxes are standing in the way of job creation. And under the plan to create jobs, the Pledge"s very first promise is to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for all income levels. A recent compromise between the president and Republican leaders extended those tax cuts for two years. Republicans differ on whether the compromise represents a first step toward making the tax cuts permanent or a weakening of a core tenet of the Pledge. For now, we're rating that one In the Works.
In total, we are tracking 57 Republican promises. Of these, more than one-third -- 20 in all -- address economic issues, from taxes and spending to trade and regulation. Three other areas have 10 or 11 promises each -- health care; military and homeland security; and transparency and government efficiency.
In addition to tax cuts, the Republicans have promised to sharply reduce government spending. Specifically, they pledged to roll back spending to "pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels" -- which would require budget cuts of more than $100 billion next year.
But it won"t be easy, say federal budget experts. Cutting spending may make for a popular refrain in stump speeches, but it often proves difficult in practice.
"Cutting $100 billion is tough to do when you have to get specific," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "But it is by no means a reach. It is both hard and necessary."
Republicans have also vowed to cancel unspent stimulus funds -- an idea that was more meaningful when significant amounts of the stimulus were still unobligated -- and to eliminate earmarks. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said there was only about $12 billion left unobligated from the stimulus in November; and White House officials said that figure is now less than $7 billion.
So, what"s not in the Pledge? A balanced budget, for one. Republicans have warned about runaway debt, but the Pledge does not tackle the drivers of long-term debt, entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- all of which are politically thorny.
"The Pledge is discouragingly quiet on fundamental entitlement reform," MacGuineas said.
Returning the budget to pre-stimulus spending levels would still leave the budget on a "completely unsustainable path," she said.
The Pledge does propose a number of reforms to congressional rules that are designed to encourage cost-cutting, as well as transparency. For example, soon-to-be House Speaker Boehner proposed a "cut as you go" rule that would require legislators proposing government programs to terminate or reduce spending in an existing program to offset the new program"s cost. Republicans have also vowed to consider weekly cost-cutting bills and to end the long-accepted technique of packaging unpopular (and often costly) bills with "must-pass" legislation.
The Pledge also has promises to appeal to Republican hawks: It promised to fully fund missile defense; ensure that foreign terrorists are tried in military courts, not civilian courts; aggressively implement sanctions against Iran; and coordinate with states to better enforce immigration laws.
As for transparency, Republicans have promised to publish the text of bills online at least three days before a House vote and, in a nod to tea party supporters who believe the Democrats have exceeded the bounds of the Constitution, the House GOP plans to require that bills identify the specific provision in the Constitution that provides authority for the bill. Because the groundwork for this promise was being laid weeks before the GOP was to take power, we're rating this In the Works.
And then there"s the health care law. During the campaign, Republicans effectively assailed the law as a government takeover of health care, and warned it would be job-killer. And they vowed that if elected, they would repeal and replace it with a Republican alternative that includes medical liability reform, an expansion of health savings accounts and state high-risk pools, and an assurance of access for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Can they keep the promises?
Repealing the health care law may prove the most politically difficult. Polls show that the individual components of the law are popular and the Democratic Senate won't be interested in repealing the law.
"It"s a long shot that it will be accomplished in the next two years," said Brian Darling, director of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The Senate could filibuster any attempt to repeal, and Obama would surely veto any attempt to repeal his prize accomplishment. If the Supreme Court does not strike down the individual mandate -- the requirement that everyone purchase health care or pay a penalty -- Republicans have vowed to try to chip away at the health bill by refusing to fund portions of it.
Soon-to-be Majority Leader Eric Cantor vowed to bring every Pledge proposal before the House for a vote. He and Boehner will have the votes to muscle many of them through the House, but many could be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats still enjoy a small majority, or at the White House, which has veto power at its disposal.
In 1994, Republicans introduced the Contract with America, which similarly promised a detailed course of action if Republicans won a majority in the House. In a frenetic first 100 days, House Republicans passed the whole agenda. But most of the initiatives died in the Senate.
And therein lies the challenge for Republicans this time around, too.
Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he believes the politics are better aligned for success this time.
"The GOP can pass everything they discussed through the House," Norquist said. "Unlike 1994, this time the GOP has a Reagan Republican majority, not just a partisan majority in the House." And the Senate isn't necessarily an insurmountable hurdle for the GOP, Norquist added. "There are no longer any moderate Democrats who will vote for good policy because they believe it, but some will vote for sound policy because they fear the electorate in 2012."
Democrats, predictably, are less convinced.
"I have to think that few of those bills will see the light of day in the Senate," said Victor Kamber, veteran Democratic strategist. "On that basis, I think they will have a very low record of accomplishment, because I don"t see the Senate going along with some of the extremes of the House."
Things may actually be easier to get through the president than the Senate, Kamber said, because he may be more willing to compromise and position himself in the political middle for 2012. Obama wouldn"t agree to stop funding health care, for instance, but he might agree to give back stimulus money or roll back spending to pre-election levels, Kamber said.
How will Republicans ultimately fare? Stay tuned to PolitiFact"s GOP Pledge-O-Meter and follow along.
GOP.gov, Pledge to America, Sept. 23, 2010
YouTube.com, Video: Pledge to America press conference, Sept. 23, 2010
House Republican Whip website, Eric Cantor: Delivering on Our Commitment
Rep. John Boehner's webite, "Pillars of a New Majority," by Leader John Boehner, June – November 2010
Interview with John Feehery, former aide to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Interview with Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former aide on the House Rules Committee
Interview with Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform
Interview with E. Scott Adler, political scientist at the University of Chicago
Interview with David W. Rohde, political scientist at Duke University
Interview with Victor Kamber, Democratic strategist
Interview with former Rep. Phil English, R-Pa.
Interview with Brian Darling, director of government relations at the Heritage Foundation
Interview with Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
Interview with Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at American Progress, former executive director of the House Democratic Study Group
Interview with Max Pappas, vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks
Interview with Michael Steel, spokesman for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio
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