Assessing the “Commitment to America”
Late last month, House Republicans announced a policy agenda they would follow in the next Congress should they win a majority of seats in the November elections. The “Commitment to America” proposes, among other things, legislation to help hire more police officers, a “Parents Bill of Rights” for their children’s education, and an end to proxy voting in the House.
Critics quickly pointed out the errors and questionable decisions that went into the rollout. The platform was posted online prematurely, then quickly removed. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) used a fake Lincoln quote in his letter to fellow Republicans touting the plan. When Republicans finally released the platform, the accompanying video used footage of “America” that actually came from Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia. And McCarthy opted to announce it with a small group of House Republicans that included the volatile, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).
Much of the platform is also vague and underwhelming. For example, it proclaims that Republicans will “stop companies from putting politics ahead of people,” “support our troops,” and “save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare,” but provides no details. It’s also unclear how these positions are any different from what Democrats stand for.
So should we ignore the “Commitment to America”? To be sure, it’s not likely to have any effect on the results of the 2022 election. Despite what lawmakers think, such platforms rarely do. Even the 1994 Contract with America, which many believe brought the GOP to power that year, was far less important to the Republicans' election victories than voter unhappiness with Bill Clinton and the conservative realignment of the South.
But these platforms do serve other important purposes. For one thing, the act of developing them helps unify the minority party. Even if the result is a “’fluff’ document long on rhetoric and short on specifics,” that unity can be extremely useful in keeping the party together in the early days of a new Congress. Given that the House GOP is already riven by factions and will likely have only a narrow majority (assuming it wins control of the chamber), maintaining internal cohesion will be absolutely essential.
Scott Meinke, who is writing a new book on congressional party platforms, has found another important consequence of party platforms: they help predict the kinds of bills the party introduces if they do have governing power. After Republicans won the House in 1994, the priorities of the Contract with America were emphasized in committee and floor activity in the subsequent Congress. The same thing happened after Democrats became the majority party in 2006 following the release of their “Six for ‘06” platform.
Finally, it’s an indication that a political party cares about legislating and the separation of powers. When the GOP refused to adopt a party platform in 2020, it was widely (and rightly) criticized as a sign that Republicans stood for nothing except, as The Brookings Institution's visiting fellow Tom Wheeler put it, “whatever Donald Trump wants.” And GOP leaders have been talking a lot more about investigating (or even impeaching) Biden than about enacting bills. Nonetheless, the “Commitment to America” is a small sign that House Republicans may be preparing to stand on their own principles and not defer completely to an autocratic-minded former president.
In short, House Republicans did a poor job unveiling their new platform, and it is not likely to make a difference in how people vote in November. But it is a useful roadmap for what a GOP-led House will do, and an important step, albeit a modest one, in the direction of democratic accountability.