In 2006, Democrats took a page from the 1994 Republican playbook with a counterpart to the GOP’s “Contract with America.” The Dems’ version is “Six for ’06.”
Even if these legislative agendas play minor roles in elections, they focus the mind of a new majority, giving them a common purpose and an energetic early schedule.
Looking back at the “Contract,” many good governance issues were taken up quickly and adopted. The House brought in auditors and professional managers for internal House institutions, applied laws to members of Congress themselves, reshaped committees, and instituted committee chair term limits. On the policy side, the House passed most of the platform planks, but a good deal were killed off in the Senate or by presidential veto. Still, at the end of the day, welfare reform, child tax credits and tough-on-crime legislation were passed into law, and a number of other provisions such as marriage penalty relief were enacted later during the Bush administration. On promises to curb the abuses of the majority, Republicans began well by scheduling more open votes and allowing minority participation, but in later years ended up with rules and practices that were at least as self-serving, if not more so, than Democrats had before 1994.
Looking at some of the key parts of “Six for ’06,” what should we expect?
- Minimum wage hike: Likely passed into law. Republicans are not thrilled by the prospect, but they would rather take the issue off the table for 2008. And, as with many financial issues, there is a lot of room for compromise on the rate itself, the phase-in period and any offsetting tax benefits for small businesses.
- Student loans: Democrats will enact much of what they propose. While Republicans prefer a more market-based loan approach, Democratic proposals to lower loan rates and make some tuition tax-deductible are popular, will not break the bank, and are issues that Republicans will likely compromise on.
- Stem cell research: Likely to get through the House and Senate, but not past a presidential veto. Democrats believe they have a winning issue with stem cells, but while the issue probably does cut in their favor, it is not nearly as much of a slam-dunk as some believe. In the 109th, 235 Members voted to override President Bush’s veto on this issue. In the 110th, there will surely be more votes, but far short of the two-thirds necessary to pass it over Bush’s objection.
- Health: Democrats face an uphill battle with their proposals to negotiate lower drug prices and add more generous Medicare benefits. Additional Medicare benefits would be very expensive, and the pharmaceutical lobby’s opposition to price and import regulation will be strong. If Democrats succeed, it will likely be indirectly by forcing HHS to make some of the regulatory decisions.
- National security: Democrats will push for and get more funding for port security, local first responders, and Special Forces. On reorganizing intelligence committee jurisdiction, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a small move in the right direction with her proposed body of intelligence appropriators and authorizers. But it is unlikely this body will have any real power.
- Ethics: While not technically part of “Six for ’06,” Democrats will likely crack down on lobbyist-paid meals and travel, limit earmarks, and create some sort of independent advisory body to the ethics committees.
Changes in majorities do have consequences, especially when a new majority begins with a public legislative blueprint. In 1994, Democrats ridiculed Republican plans as a “Contract on America,” but now it seems that what was good for the elephants is good for the donkeys.
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.