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Nudged by the Contract

Before the 104th Congress takes up final, dusty residence in the history books, let's revisit the days of revolutionary Republicanism - yes, the Contract With America.

The Contract was hailed and reviled. From the time it was "signed," just before the midterm election of 1994, through the first 100 days of 1995, it drove US political dialogue.

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The news media, this newspaper included, kept a weekly tally on how the Contract's 10 items were doing in Congress. For a while it seemed the agenda that steamed Newt Gingrich's new majority into office would chug through all resistance. But that didn't happen. The institutional brakes of the US Senate soon turned the juggernaut into a very slow freight.

Some major items never had a chance - notably term limits, a proposition that even the most revolution-minded Congress could not swallow. The balanced-budget constitutional amendment - by any measure a radical way to force fiscal responsibility on the capital - had strong legislative and public backing. But not quite enough to clear the Senate, where it failed by one (Republican) vote.

Yet a lot of the Contract did find its way to eventual passage and enactment - 60 percent by Republican count. Included were such measures as a presidential line-item veto (giving the executive the power to rescind specific parts of appropriations bills), and an end to unfunded mandates imposed on state and local government by the feds.

Beyond that, Contract measures had a life beyond the Contract, nudging the legislative agenda to the right. Welfare reform, roughed out in the "Personal Responsibility Act" section of the Contract, finally surfaced with administration acquiescence. The balanced-budget amendment may have failed, but the goal of a balanced budget was adopted all around. The seven-year target was ultimately championed by Clinton as well as Gingrich - in fact, a competition developed in which the Speaker got burned as Republicans pushed fiscal principle to the point of a shutdown of the federal government, drawing the public's ire.

Current Democratic efforts to pin a somber epitaph on the Contract, calling it a descent into extremist, reactionary politics, don't ring true. The Contract marked a course adjustment in American politics. Broad areas like tax reform and relief, tort reform, and some elements of regulatory reform are still firmly on the national agenda.

The Contract, for all its oversteps and omissions, opened a door to rethinking federal priorities. That process will have to keep moving - and expanding - to embrace the entitlement reforms crucial to a sound fiscal future.

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