The GOP `Contract'

CONGRESSIONAL Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, have a flair for political theater. On Tuesday, the stage was the Capitol steps, where amid much John Philip Sousa and flag waving, more than 300 GOP House candidates signed a 10-point ``contract with America.'' The pitch: Give us a majority in the House and here's what we'll do in the first 100 days.

If the document were a serious effort to shift the campaign toward a debate over issues and away from viewing House races as referendums on President Clinton and House minority whip Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, it would have provided a public service. But there is less here than meets the eye:

Problem 1. As Democrats can attest, having a majority in Congress does not mean legislation passes. Witness the defeat of health-care reform. Neither party is monolithic. On any given issue, some Republicans may vote with Democrats, and vice versa. This factor becomes critical if the number of seats separating the majority and minority parties is small.

Problem 2. Promising only to bring matters to votes, as Mr. Gingrich describes the contract's pledge, is realistic but also paints an effective pattern of political camouflage. Democrats in the Senate needn't be in the majority to block a bill, or at least remove its most offensive provisions. This gives House Republicans who otherwise might be uneasy with some elements of the contract an out: They can vote for a bill even if it bothers them and score points with the House leadership while being reasonably confident that once a bill gets to the Senate, it will get shot down.

Problem 3. The contract fails to serve the political interests of the signatories. Surveys that register deep voter anger with Congress also suggest that the anger is aimed at both parties. At least symbolically, the newcomers are tying their political fortunes to an agenda put forward by leaders whom many voters see as part of the problem, not the solution.

House races hinge on local issues. As individual issues, some of the contract's 10 points deserve a serious look - for example, forcing Congress to abide by the same regulations it imposes on the rest of the country. Other points are balding retreads. All are topics for a lively debate.

The most charitable thing voters can do with the contract is forget it and hold a candidate accountable on issues that really concern them.

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