The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on January 27, 2008.
Both the Creation of the Contract with America in 1994 and its subsequent abandonment can be explained in terms of the conflict in government between what I call legislative entrepreneurs and legislative bureaucrats. In 1994, when we wrote the Contract, entrepreneurs were strong. Today, as most of the time, bureaucrats are running things.
By legislative entrepreneur, I mean a person who has a set of principles and is willing to take risks on its behalf. A legislative bureaucrat, by contrast, seeks only to perpetuate the current situation with the motive of remaining safely in office. The fact that legislative bureaucrats are usually in command reminds me of Armey’s Axiom Number One: “The market is rational. The government is dumb.” I know the former to be true as someone who has studied economics. I know the latter to be true as someone who spent a long time in Congress.
One of the greatest entrepreneurial moments in the history of human government was the writing of our Constitution. America’s Founders understood clearly what it means to accomplish a goal on behalf of ideas and principles that rise above self-interest. George Washington might have become our king, but chose not to. His governing idea was that government is our servant because we are inherently free. It is an idea too many in government today forget.
In politics, every great enterprise eventually falls into the hands of what I call legislative bureaucrats. This explains the ongoing debate in Congress today over whether we even need to pay attention to the Constitution, and over whether the government’s power should indeed be limited, as our Founders believed, to upholding liberty. It has fallen now to future legislative entrepreneurs on the conservative side of the aisle to revive that central concept of America.
There have been only three great moments of pro-Constitution entrepreneurship in my adult lifetime. The first of these was the presidential campaign of 1964, when Barry Goldwater tried courageously to remind the nation why our Founders thought it vital to limit government. Needless to say, Goldwater suffered a landslide electoral defeat. But he galvanized the modern conservative movement, which rose from the ashes of his failed campaign.
The second great moment was Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980—this one wildly successful—which was run, like Goldwater’s, on a consistently principled platform of limited government. Reagan’s election inspired me and many other conservatives to run for office. And the eight years following can largely be characterized as a struggle between constitutionalists who wished to restore limits on government and the always more numerous bureaucrats, both in the executive departments and in Congress. Fortunately, for most of his presidency, Reagan and his allies prevailed. But when George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, riding Reagan’s coattails, the bureaucrats began taking over again, and the Reagan Revolution had almost completely dissipated by the time Bill Clinton was elected in 1992.
The third great political moment in my lifetime was the Contract with America in 1994. In the run-up to the congressional elections that year, Hillary Clinton had been touting her government-run, command-and-control health care plan and scaring the devil out of the American people. The Republican leadership decided to capitalize on this terrible plan, seeking to seize power for the sake of implementing pro-Constitution policies. And the idea worked: Republicans took control of Congress that year in dramatic fashion, largely due to the Contract with America.
Those of us who signed on to the Contract were devoted to rolling back government as much as we could. The biggest success of those years—and a superb example of legislative entrepreneurship—was welfare reform. President Clinton vetoed it twice, but we saw it through, and it has worked marvelously well. It became such a great success, in fact, that Clinton eventually claimed it as the best idea he ever had! The lesson here for limited government conservatives is that they must not be afraid to dare.
Ever since the successes of the Contract with America, the balance in our government has moved slowly but surely from entrepreneurship back to bureaucracy. One day I found myself in a House leadership meeting, and I realized that we were coming to town each week and doing things we weren’t supposed to be doing. We justified this by telling ourselves that we needed to hold on to the majority in order to do the things we should be doing.
In the end, the Republican Congress—in the two or three years leading up to the Democratic victories in 2006—had utterly forsaken its commitment to liberty and limited government, with the often active acquiescence of the White House. This brings me to another one of Armey’s Axioms: “If it’s only about power, you lose.”
The Republican majority, having forgotten the lessons of 1994 and having committed themselves only to the next election, not only failed their country but lost their power.