In 1995, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the newly Republican-led Congress put forward a legislative agenda dubbed the “Contract with America.” Rep. Bernie Sanders opposed the Contract because it sought to address the $4.5 trillion national debt and balance the budget by cutting Social Security, Medicare, and student loan programs while simultaneously lowering taxes for the wealthy and increasing military spending.
“Let us be frank and honest with the American people. Newt Gingrich’s Republican “Contract with America” is a fraudulent series of proposals which will make the wealthiest people in America wealthier while causing intense pain and suffering for the weakest and most vulnerable members of our country,” said Sanders in a 1994 op-ed.
“It is no secret that this country has a very serious deficit problem. While it is true that in the last three years, the deficit has gone down, the fact remains that it is still a large deficit, and we have a national debt of $4.5 trillion. Even in Washington, that’s a lot of money,” he added during a Vermont town hall.
So what was the “Contract with America?”
On November 8, 1994, the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years and named Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia Speaker of the House. In the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, the Gingrich-led House enacted every bill cited in the “Contract with America,” except a proposed constitutional amendment mandating term limits for members of Congress.
In furthering what the press quickly dubbed the “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich and his newly emboldened conservative allies also capitalized on the perception that the House Democratic leadership had engaged in corrupt practices and on broad dissatisfaction among independent voters with the policies of President Bill Clinton.
“Some observers cite the “Contract with America” as having helped secure a decisive victory for the Republicans in the 1994 elections; others dispute this role, noting its late introduction into the campaign. Whatever the role of the Contract, Republicans were elected to a majority of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1953, and some parts of the Contract were enacted. Most elements did not pass in Congress, while others were vetoed by or substantially altered in negotiations with President Bill Clinton, who would sarcastically refer to it as the “Contract on America,” implying that the Republicans’ legislative package was akin to an organized crime hit on the American public.”
“The Contract’s text included a list of eight reforms the Republicans promised to enact and ten bills they promised to bring to floor debate and votes if they were made the majority following the election. While crafting the Contract, proposals were limited to “60% issues. I.e., legislation that polling showed garnered 60% support of the American people, intending for the Contract to avoid promises on controversial and divisive matters like abortion and school prayer. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon characterized the Contract as having taken more than half of its text from Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address.”
Twenty-seven years later, on the eve of a heated 2022 midterm election, Sanders would make a recommendation straight out of the GOP playbook by pushing the Democrats to offer a progressive “Contract with America” that spans the party’s priorities on climate and social programs.