Carl P. Leubsdorf: Will history repeat for House GOP?

House Republicans are hoping history will repeat itself. That may well happen — but not necessarily to their long-term benefit.

In a middle-class Pittsburgh suburb, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy last week unveiled the party’s platform for the November elections, a mostly general set of promises called the “Commitment to America.”

It pledges to fight inflation by curbing “wasteful government spending,” increasing “take-home pay” and acting to “move supply chains away from China.” It vows to fight illegal immigration by acting to “fully fund effective border enforcement strategies” and “end catch-and-release loopholes.”

The exercise echoes the far more explicit 1994 “Contract with America,” the platform pledging action on proposals like a balanced budget amendment and congressional term limits that Republicans led by Newt Gingrich used in the successful campaign that ended 40 years of Democratic House control.

Once in power, however, the GOP discovered that enacting the specifics was far more difficult than advocating for them. Though the Republican House passed most promised measures, virtually none became law because of opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate or vetoes by President Bill Clinton.

That Republican Congress cooperated with Clinton in some areas, producing welfare reform in 1996 and a major tax cut/balanced budget bill in 1997. But the House also spent substantial time investigating the Clinton administration, climaxing with the 1998 impeachment probe that created an anti-GOP political backlash that year.

House Republicans may encounter similar problems next year if they succeed in capturing control as current polling indicates is likely. Indeed, the agenda McCarthy presented did far more to obscure their real intentions than to illuminate them.

For example, its only reference to abortion is a promise “to protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers” at a time when many congressional Republicans are pushing for a nationwide ban on abortion, after the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the procedure.

Besides, even before the GOP leader presented the statement, carefully crafted to ensure support from Republicans of all political stripes, some of his more assertive colleagues – and prospective colleagues – were touting a far more aggressive agenda.

“Our agenda for the first two years is simple: impeachment, obstruction and oversight,” GOP congressional candidate Joe Kent told a town hall in Amboy, Washington, The New York Times reported.

Kentucky Republican Rep. James Comer, in line to chair the Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced its three priorities would be the Biden family’s finances, primarily those of President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter; the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of Dr. Anthony Fauci; and the administration’s problems on the Southern border.

South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace predicted on NBC’s Meet the Press there will be “a lot of pressure” on Republicans to impeach Biden. Another likely target: Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security.

It will be up to McCarthy to sanction these efforts – or try to restrain them. But he could face the same difficulties with the party’s right wing as the last two Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, especially if the GOP has only a small majority.

At a recent GOP conference, the House Freedom Caucus signaled it will withhold support from electing McCarthy as speaker until he agrees to a package of rules changes that include requiring the House to only consider bills backed by a majority of Republicans.

Formalizing that requirement, which House Republicans have long followed in practice, could prevent a GOP majority from even considering some of the appropriations bills that fund the government.

Meanwhile, McCarthy, elaborating Friday on the commitment’s pledge to “rein in government abuse of power,” said the GOP’s first bill would be “to repeal 87,000 IRS agents.” He referred, inaccurately, to the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act’s provision providing funds to add up to 87,000 new Internal Revenue Service positions for increased enforcement, primarily for corporations and high-income taxpayers.

While the GOP must only satisfy its own troops to investigate the Biden administration, enacting sweeping legislation is harder. As Gingrich discovered during his brief but tempestuous speakership, House passage doesn’t necessarily guarantee Senate approval, even if Republicans regain the majority.

It will still take 60 votes to pass most measures in the Senate. Whichever party wins control will likely have a bare majority, nowhere close to 60, limiting the prospect of passing partisan GOP measures.

Meanwhile, Biden made clear in responding to the House GOP’s announcement that he will use his veto pen to protect his legislative achievements. That’s what Clinton did in turning GOP opposition to his benefit when its adamancy forced a federal government shutdown.

The House GOP is trying to cloak its advocacy of controversial measures within general, widely supported goals. But its actual agenda is apt to be more hard-edged and less politically acceptable than the platitudes in its Commitment to America.

Reach Carl P. Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.