Former Congressman J. C. Watts visited Spokane on Sept. 23 for the Washington Policy Center annual dinner. When we both served in the U.S. House of Representatives, a different atmosphere and attitude prevailed among House members that seems largely absent today. That attitude was best symbolized by a broad commitment to national progress, a phrase and a concept too often obscured today by personal political victories.
The Contract With America was the Class of 1995's certificate of commitment to a set of principles and guarantees that, if implemented, would assure voters of tangible national progress — progress for which Congressional Republicans were willing to be held accountable when election time rolled around. It was a kind of "money-back guarantee." Largely, it worked.
When Republicans took over the House Majority in January 1995 after 40 years in the minority, Congressional approval jumped from 23 percent in December 1994 to 35 percent in January 1995. And it reached just under 60 percent in the 1998 period while Republicans implemented popular measures such as welfare reform and tax relief, cutting $500 billion from the national debt in the process. President Clinton's popularity was high then, too — reflecting the public's satisfaction with the job being done by both Executive and Congressional elected officials.
Congressional approval lately has hovered between 7 and 13 percent, and President Obama's approvals are consistently below 50 percent, ratings of which no one can be proud. Obamacare's disapproval rating is consistently over 60 percent, not a good rating for a President's signature legislation.
While I'm skeptical of "good old days" comparisons, there are several lessons that current policymakers can learn from those of us who served when Congressional approval ratings were higher:
1. Adopt national policies that both Democrats and Republicans favor. Tax reform, controlled spending, reducing national indebtedness, emphasizing non-wasteful spending are all winning policies among the public. Progress on these policies bolsters public confidence.
2. Let the minority party win policy victories. Republican majorities can be satisfied with a 60-40 or 51-49 victory on major issues. Majorities, including the President, must never gloat post-election because leaders can't guarantee perpetual majority status. It's better to empathize with the minority than pulverize it.
3. Always follow the rules and the law. In recent times, policymakers have implemented policies that circumvent the law. The U.S. Senate, contrary to law, didn't pass a budget for years. The President's budget submissions are always late. The President uses Executive Orders to literally change laws he's already signed — with no consequence. Doing so is a letdown to public confidence.
4. Admit mistakes honestly and then take corrective steps. Mr. Obama should have admitted mistakes in Benghazi. He's done little, and the public has, or will, see through the "video excuse" that was proffered in the attack's aftermath. If Mr. Obama had acknowledged forthrightly the health care website fiasco and pledged to fix it, that issue might not affect the 2014 Congressional elections like it now will. The IRS targeting is an affront to all. It deviates from a national assumption that the IRS doesn't pick victims politically. President Obama hasn't shown the proper amount of outrage or action over it. The public despises hypocrisy.
5. Public officials must always be able to point to progress due to their service. This year, there's not a lot of progress to tout by any federal public official. The federal budget is terribly unbalanced, national debt will strangle the financial freedom of younger Americans for decades, hotspots such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, parts of Africa and North Korea, among others, are a mess, and a largely jobless recovery dogs the United States. Some measure of progress recognized by the public can change public perception — and likewise engender confidence that public officials are making a positive difference.
6. Speak to the public's higher values. If the public wants anything today, it's the security that comes with hope — for better days, better opportunities, a secure nation and confidence that our leaders know how to solve our nation's problems. As the U.S. culture changes on social issues, leaders have to instill a confidence in citizens that inevitable cultural changes won't diminish American society or our place in the world. For two centuries, the U.S. has largely been a bulwark against oppression by foreign nations, oppression that has been sought by aggressive nations for centuries. While human nature hasn't changed, it takes at least one nation whose cultural standards are not diminished and that is mighty enough to advocate for world order.
That country is America. Public officials have a sacred duty to uphold the national standards and values of which generations of Americans have been proud — free enterprise, liberty, human rights and justice for all.
In the spirit and memory of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, the legacy of American prominence and high standards must accompany all leaders who serve. ♦