TOO MUCH TOO SOON
Newt Gingrich and the 104th Congress
11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
To appreciate the ways in which the political landscape has been altered since Republicans took control of Congress two years ago, consider the ways in which the Democratic party has changed in the past four years. Before 1994, Democrats on Capitol Hill actively sought a $ 265 billion tax increase and the Clinton health-care plan. And after 19947 House minority leader Dick Gephardt trumpeted the release of a political agenda for the future a few months ago. It was called "Families First" and proved to be a hodgepodge of minor proposals. There were no calls for tax hikes or spending increases; instead, this imitation Contract With America endorsed Republican ideas like business tax relief. "People don't want big government solutions," declared the party of big government.
And what would Democrats have done if they had taken control of Congress last week? "I don't see any legislation we would attempt to undo," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said before the election. No? What about repealing the anti-gay-marriage law? Changing welfare-reform legislation? Restoring at least some of the New Deal farm programs ended this year? Republicans succeeded in making $ 53 billion worth of discretionary spending cuts during the last Congress; surely the Democrats want some of that money back. Not according to Gephardt: "We're all New Democrats now," he said a few months ago. Daschle agrees: "This president and the Democratic leadership in Congress have learned that comprehensive approaches to longstanding problems are not likely to succeed, and are not necessarily advisable," he told the New York Times before last week's election. "We believe in the incremental approach."
If that's true, it's a lesson they learned from watching the many mistakes House Republicans made after taking control in January 1995. The first 100 days of the 104th Congress told the tale. The months went by in a frenetic blur; there were late nights and screaming fights on the House floor and contentious Gingrich press conferences every morning, all of it live and in living color on C-SPAN. And the House passed new law after new law: Nine of the ten Contract With America items were passed. Congressional reform one week; a ban on imposing expensive mandates on state governments the next. A massive overhaul of the American tort system one month; a $ 353 billion tax cut the next. It was dizzying and confusing. There was no time for much of a case to be made on behalf of any of these items, some of which were highly technical. Deceitful Democratic counterspin was easier to understand (and more appealing to a credulous media): Republicans were taking food from children's mouths by cutting school lunches. The tax cut favored the rich. Newt and the rest were greasing the skids for big business by making lawsuits harder to file. And who was out there selling the Contract besides Gingrich in those edgy press conferences? The Washington Times. The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Rush Limbaugh and other talk-radio hosts, who spent weeks trying to beat back the Democratic spin to little effect.
"We spent too much time legislating and not enough time politicking," says a senior GOP House aide. He believes that if the Republicans had 1995 to do over again, they would schedule the Contract votes over a year-long period, to emphasize each bill and spend more time taking credit for each achievement.
Even conservative activists like Grover Norquist now acknowledge that "you can't do everything in two years."
Yet energized by their takeover of Congress, the Republican revolutionaries acted as if these would be the only two years they would ever hold a majority. Such zeal was occasionally admirable, and sometimes inspirational, but it also produced a number of costly political blunders.
A strange thing happened during the forced march of the 100 days: Washington Republicans were so focused on getting the Contract through the House that they literally forgot it takes two houses of Congress to get legislation to the president, and it takes a president's signature to make it law. On two separate occasions, as the tax bill and the tort bill finally secured enough votes for passage in the House despite early signs that Republicans were fearful of them, people working behind the scenes burst into applause before a small voice in the room reminded them that the bills had to get through the Senate. (The tax bill went nowhere. A sliver of the tort- reform bill passed and was signed into law by Clinton.)