Live Webcast: The Republican Revolution at 10: Lasting Legacy or Faded Vision?
"We figured we had a 3 to 5 year cycle in which to carry out our program," former Speaker Newt Gingrich said of the Republican revolution launched in 1994 with the Contract with America. As it turned out, according to Gingrich, the revolution culminated with the balanced budget agreement struck between congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton in 1997. Gingrich stepped down as House Speaker the following year at the end of the 1998 session. Gingrich said the GOP takeover of Congress in 1995 was the result of long years of planning, recruiting, and training candidates. "We were able to accomplish both political change and a change in ideas simultaneously in 1994 because we were standing on the shoulders of Ronald Reagan" and the ideas he brought to the fore on cutting taxes, reducing the role of government, strengthening our defenses, and reforming welfare.
Vic Fazio, a former Democratic House member from Sacramento, California, entered and exited the Congress the same years as Gingrich (1978 and 1998). Fazio said he had the "misfortune" of being chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) when Republicans began picking up seats in the House, and then being chairman of the House Democratic Caucus for the two congresses of the Gingrich speakership. "Newt's efforts and the Contract worked. They brought together candidates to run on common ground and thereby nationalized a mid-term election." Fazio added that the effort captured the attention of the press who tended to empathize with the Republicans' complaints about 40 years of Democratic rule in Congress. Republicans exploited the House bank and post office scandals, and were able to block Clinton's healthcare initiative because "some committee chairs cared more about their committees' jurisdictional turf than they did about getting things done." Fazio said the Republicans also managed to use the 4.3 cents per gallon gas tax increase in Clinton's reconciliation package to electoral advantage, even though they have not bothered to repeal it in the 12 years since.
While the panelists agreed that Republicans had managed to change the nation's policy agenda over the last decade with different priorities than the Democrats, they have been less successful in changing the way Congress does business, even though congressional reform and accountability were a big part of their Contract and campaign themes. Fazio gave Gingrich credit for cutting some committees and staff and changing some jurisdictions, but on other reforms there has been backsliding. Instead of the openness promised, more and more committee decisions are made behind closed doors, without the participation of or consultation with minority Democrats, and majority and minority members are increasingly being denied the ability to offer House floor amendments, Fazio noted.
Political scientist Sarah Binder says the Republicans' procedural tactics are simply an extension of the tactics used by previous Democratic Speakers like Tip O'Neill (Ma.), Jim Wright (Texas), and Tom Foley (Wash.), "though Republicans have ratcheted things up a bit" in terms of the frequency and intensity of their governing techniques. Binder said the trend is a natural outgrowth of the move away from committee government to party government in Congress begun in the mid-1970s.
Former Speaker Gingrich warned, though, that "The House is too tight and the Senate is too loose," and Republicans will ultimately hurt themselves by running roughshod over the minority even on unimportant matters. "There will be little chance to appeal for bipartisanship on important issues if the Republicans have so alienated and angered the minority at practically every turn," Gingrich observed.
However, Binder said there was little chance Republicans would expand the rights of the minority with their majority margin so small. "Even if Republicans are more divided on policy matters now than before, their electoral goals have held them together. I am struck by how much Republicans have adapted to the old ways of doing things." Fazio agreed, saying, "they have concluded that absolute control is the only way to preserve a Republican majority. Keeping power is more important than any other value or priority."
LA Times reporter Janet Hook agreed that the locus of power in the House had shifted from the committees to the party leaders. "It used to be if you wanted information on legislation or the decision making process, you'd go to the committee chairs like Danny Rostenkowski at Ways and Means or John Dingell at Commerce. Today if you want to know what's going on, you go the party leadership." Hook added that she was "astonished that the term limits on committee chairs is still on the books." The three-term limit (six years) was set in House rules in 1995, and there has subsequently been a complete turnover in chairmanships. Hook said the term limits are one reason the leaders have remained powerful since they now pick the chairmen, sometimes without regard to seniority, as they just did with the Appropriations Committee. This keeps the chairs loyal to the leaders and party caucus. Hook said the change has been salutary for the system because "you do get new blood."
Hook observed that the legacy of the Republicans today is not what they set out to achieve in 1995. "In 1994 they ran on smaller government. You don't hear much talk about that today. Maybe it's because they get to make decisions on where the money is spent and on what programs. Maybe it's partly the result of 9/11 and the need for more government to address the terrorist threat."
Fazio concluded that Republicans have gone back on so many of their original goals and promises that they have little credibility today. He mentioned the recent changes in ethics rules passed by Republicans to protect their whip from being removed from leadership if he is indicted (a rule they reversed course on after the election). Even the so-called "Congressional Accountability Act," which aims to apply private sector labor laws to Congress, is being eroded by leadership attempts to argue in the courts that Congress is protected by the "speech or debate" clause against employee discrimination suits, Fazio noted.
Gingrich concluded that if the Republicans in Congress are perceived by the people as a political machine instead of a political party of the people, then they could be vulnerable in 2006 or 2008. "If Democrats move more to the center and become a reform party, they could be a formidable threat." Gingrich said the issues that could turn off the Republican base and change the current political balance are if things get worse on the economy or Iraq as the election approaches.