The Contract With America was a statement drafted in 1994 by a number of leading House Republicans, and signed by almost all House Republicans at the time. It was a comprehensive list of promises the Republicans made to the American people, should they be granted a majority in the House of Representatives during the 1994 election.
Unlike a number of previous campaign promises, the Contract With America set out very specific promises and goals. It was drafted by Larry Hunter with assistance from Robert Walker, Richard Armey, Bill Paxton, John Boehner, Jim Nussle, Tom DeLay, and Newt Gingrich. It drew heavily on ideas put forth by the conservative Heritage Foundation, as well as specific points laid out in Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address.
The House Republicans presented the contract roughly six weeks before the midterm elections in 1994, during the first Clinton administration. It was a way for Republicans to really unite and run together as a group, across the nation. It worked, without a doubt, and the Republicans captured the House for the first time in four decades. In many ways, the triumph of the Contract With America was seen as a culminating triumph for the modern conservative movement, demonstrating the strength of their bloc.
The Contract With America, while laying out many specific policy decisions, intentionally shied away from addressing the more controversial and divisive issues in the political world. Notably absent from a conservative doctrine such as the contract was any mention of hot-button issues such as school prayer or abortion.
The Contract With America laid out specific changes over set periods of time. On the first day of Republican majority, for example, they pledged to hold votes on the floor covering eight distinct reforms. Within the first hundred days they further pledged to bring ten bills to the floor, covering things such as term limits, tort reform, and tax cuts.
The Republican majority did in fact bring most of the bills to the floor, although the vast majority died there. A few notable bills passed, however. This included the Taking Back Our Streets Act, the American Dream Restoration Act, giving a $500 rebate per child, the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act, which cut capital gains, and gave a number of small business incentives, and the National Security Restoration Act, which cut back the number of US troops serving under the United Nations.
Critics of the contract saw it mostly as a political ploy, albeit a highly successful one. In many cases it was called a distraction for the middle class, presenting promises of bills that were so full of holes they were certain to be shot down or to be largely ineffectual in the long run. The Republican Party tested the Contract With America in many different focus groups, overseen by pollster Frank Luntz, finding various components that tested at over 60% approval rating, and removing any sections that were seen less favorably. For this reason it was viewed as a somewhat cynical attempt to sway public opinion with little regard for actual policy.
Whatever the rationale behind the Contract With America, it does seem to have played some role in the Republican majority in the 104th Congress. It was certainly a unique approach to national politics, and although nothing has since been attempted on the same scale, a number of elements have since been recycled by both parties at various levels.