Tea Party Activists Craft 'Contract from America'

Democrats Say Document Will Expose Tensions with Establishment Republicans

ByTeddy Davis
February 3, 2010, 4:58 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2010— -- Republicans on Capitol Hill are developing an election-year alternative to the Obama administration's agenda. But a Tea Party activist in Texas says the politicians in Washington - including the out-of-power Republicans - don't have the "credibility" to offer a contract.

His solution? Use the Internet, develop a "Contract from America," and make the politicians come to him.

"You are going to be held accountable by us," said conservative activist Ryan Hecker, offering a preview of what Tea Party activists are going to tell congressional candidates later this year. "We have a plan - a proactive reform plan - for you to follow and not the other way around."

Technically, Hecker doesn't have a reform plan yet. He does, however, have one in the works.

He says he came up with the contract idea shortly after Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008. Hecker, a 29-year old lawyer from Houston, spent the 2008 GOP primaries working as an opposition researcher for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

To get his idea off the ground, he launched a website, "ContractFromAmerica.com," which encourages activists to offer possible planks for the contract.

From the original 1,000 ideas which were submitted, Hecker whittled it down to about 50 based on popularity. He is currently in the process of narrowing it to 20 ideas. He is being aided in this process by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey, whose conservative group, FreedomWorks, has established close ties with many Tea Party activists around the country.

When the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), convenes later this month in Washington, DC, Hecker says he will launch an on-line voting phase which will take his document from 20 ideas to the final 10 to 12 most popular.

The completed "Contract from America" will then be presented to the public on Tax Day, April 15, 2010.

Hecker wants to give all congressional candidates - Republicans, Democrats, and Independents - an opportunity to sign onto his "contract."

Tea Partier Tries to Define Group's Agenda

There might be some considerable overlap between the Tea Party agenda and the official Republican agenda. Both, for example, are likely to propose major changes to the U.S. tax code. But there could also be notable differences between the establishment and outsider approaches.

When asked what might be in his contract which would not be in the agenda being produced by the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, Hecker pointed to term limits as a possible example.

"A lot of congressmen want to hold onto their seats forever," said Hecker. "They may not like term limits."

"You need to be viable for 2010, but I believe it will be a document that's bolder than something Eric Cantor would cook up," Hecker added, referring to the House Republican Whip who joined House Republican Leader John Boehner and many Democrats in voting for the Wall Street bailout in 2008.

As for the scope of the contract, Hecker thinks that it should not include any social issues.

"By putting social issues in, we would immediately be dividing our movement," he said.

Hecker thinks national defense should also be left out.

"It might be somewhat divisive for our base," said Hecker. "Especially libertarians versus conservatives."

Hecker wants the document focused squarely on economic and government reform issues.

"Our movement is free markets, constitutionally limited government, economic freedom," said Hecker.

The "Contract from America" is still a work in progress but one possibility which has a lot of support on Hecker's website is implementing the "Fair Tax" which would sweep away all federal taxes and replace it with a 23 percent sales tax. To offset the impact that the sales tax would have on the poor, the 2008 version of the legislation would offer single adults a monthly prebate of $196 and a family of four a monthly prebate of $525. Because support for the "Fair Tax" is not universal, Hecker's contract might end up calling more generically for fundamental tax reform and leave the details to Congress.

Will Tea Party Contract Hurt Republicans in November?

Other ideas which have been highly rated by visitors of the "Contract from America" site include abolishing the Department of Education, passing nationwide tort reform, establishing an official language of the United States and defunding "activist" groups like ACORN. One reform measure which is very popular states that legislation "shall contain no unrelated amendments."

A balanced budget amendment has garnered some support. Hecker thinks, however, that it will not make the final cut because Tea Party activists worry that such an amendment could become a convenient excuse for politicians to raise taxes rather than to cut spending.

Although Republicans have done a fairly good job thus far of harnessing Tea Party energy since the grassroots movement got started last year in response to the Obama administration's economic agenda, a spokeswoman for House Democrats' campaign arm sees the development of a Tea Party contract as posing potential risks for Republicans in November.

"I think it highlights the division between the Tea Party activists and the establishment Republicans," said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The Tea Party activists are going to move Republican candidates farther and farther to the right. That's a good strategy for winning a Republican primary but it will hurt them in the general election."

Crider cited partial privatization of Social Security as an example of the kind of issue which may get endorsed in a Tea Party Contract but which will be less popular with general-election voters.

The idea of offering voters a contract was popularized by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in 1994. In September of that year, the Georgia Republican staged an event in front of the U.S. Capitol in which Republican House candidates promised to vote on a specific set of legislative proposals. In November of 1994, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

In a recent article for NewsMax, a conservative publication, Gingrich offered his own ideas for a new Contract for America. Looking back on the 1994 experience, he explained the power of the "contract" idea.

"A contract is not a platform," writes Gingrich in NewsMax. "A platform says we are for something and we may or may not get it done. A contract is an explicit commitment to act."

GOP's McCarthy: We're Not Just the Party of 'No'

Although Gingrich used his Contract for America to claim that he had a mandate to act following the election, some Republican strategists concede in private that the GOP owed its substantial gains that year to frustration with then-President Bill Clinton and not to voters yearning to implement an agenda with which most were not acquainted.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who has been put in charge of developing the GOP's official 2010 agenda, told ABC News in an interview that he welcomes the Tea Party activists' effort to develop their own "Contract from America."

McCarthy, who is also in charge of recruiting GOP congressional candidates, declined to comment on any of the specific proposals that Hecker is considering, saying that the Agenda that he is crafting will develop organically from conversations he is having around the country as well as from feedback which he will receive on the web.

McCarthy did, however, refute the idea promoted in private by some Republicans that the GOP could succeed in 2010 simply through a strategy of opposition.

"There are a number of seats that you get just by being 'no,'" said McCarthy. "But you don't get a majority by just being 'no.' You've got to say what you're for."

ABC News' Matt Loffman contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events