The Blog

TOO MUCH TOO SOON

Newt Gingrich and the 104th Congress

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



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.)


A Senate Democratic leadership aide pinpoints the chamber's debate over regulatory reform in the summer of 1995 as the time Republican momentum really began to slow. The House had passed a bill that addressed complaints from business groups about government regulations. It passed easily, even though moderate House Republicans were queasy about it and warned the leadership that some of the provisions were misguided and politically dangerous. At the same time, a spate of news stories came out detailing the key roles lawyers and lobbyists played in drafting the legislation.


When the bill went to the Senate, it ran into a roadblock. Democrats and their interest-group allies skillfully and shamelessly waged a scare campaign about the potentially disastrous effects of the legislation, invoking the specter of an E. coli epidemic. As Senate Republicans weakened the bill in search of a deal, tensions erupted with their House counterparts. Though the bill never passed, so many of the proposals struck at workplace issues -- such as a reduction in the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- that the AFL-CIO was emboldened to launch its $ 35 million advertising campaign against the Republican majority in the House.


The Senate's failure to pass regulatory reform, as well as many other parts of the House's ambitious agenda, was a source of constant frustration and irritation for House Republicans. Aides on both sides say the lines of communication between the two chambers were never as close as they should have been. In meetings with his colleagues, Gingrich often invoked the restructuring experiences of Fortune 500 corporations as a model for Congress. It was an appealing, but flawed, model, overlooking the fact that corporations don't face obstacles equivalent to senators and a president.


Republicans really allowed their ambitious, good-small-government zeal to overtake political reality in their single-minded pursuit of a balanced budget. The effort began inauspiciously on February 15, 1995; the House had already passed a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, and the Senate was still engrossed in debate. On that day, Gingrich declared he wouldn't consider any budget that didn't reach balance within seven years. (Why seven years? That was "the longest period in which you can maintain the discipline to insist on it happening," Gingrich said. How did he know? " Intuition.")


This was a major announcement, but it turned out Gingrich not only failed to mention it to Bob Dole and Republicans in the Senate, he hadn't even talked about it with his own budget honchos, John Kasich and Bob Livingston. These committee chairmen -- Kasich runs Budget, Livingston runs Appropriations -- were dumbfounded by Gingrich's unilateral proclamation. They immediately warned Gingrich that boxing them in to a seven-year budget plan was a mistake. According to Washington Post reporters David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, Kasich presciently pointed out that such an effort would demand Medicare cuts "unlike any this town has ever seen before."


Livingston and Kasich later lined up behind Gingrich, but in retrospect it's clear Republicans took a huge and unnecessary gamble. The idea of a balanced budget is incredibly popular in the abstract, but the GOP's experience last year was a reminder of the pain involved in proposing dramatic spending cuts. And the remarkably square-shouldered decision by Republicans to be "honest" budgeteers -- which meant accepting the economic assumptions of the pessimistic Congressional Budget Office -- resurrected their age-old image as green-eyeshade accountants more interested in double- entry bookkeeping than economic growth.


Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute, says the whole exercise was a mistake. He suggests that after the Senate failed to garner the two-thirds majority necessary to pass a constitutional amendment (the vote took place in March 1995), Republicans should have pursued a more modest effort at cutting spending and taxes while blasting vote-switching Democrats and the White House for opposing the amendment.


This isn't as silly as it sounds: The Contract didn't promise a balanced budget, only a vote on the amendment. In any case, the political advantage Republicans might have enjoyed from passing a balanced budget would have been blown out of the water by Bill Clinton's decision to endorse the idea of a balanced budget a few months later.


Once the Republicans walked into the balancedbudget trap, however, it was almost inevitable that their Boy Scout-like earnestness would be trumped by Democratic deceits. Take the proposal for Medicare reform. When it was first presented to GOP chairman Haley Barbour in February 1995, he strongly advised delaying action until after the presidential election. Barbour recognized the political sensitivity of scaling back spending on health care for the elderly. But he was rebuffed by Gingrich, who rightly saw Medicare as a budgetary time bomb but wrongly believed Medicare was not sacrosanct in the way Social Security was. "If we calmly and methodically execute, we're going to do fine," Gingrich told Elizabeth Drew. "I mean, people are going to look back on this and say, 'That must have been easy.'"


Gingrich did do a masterful job of persuading powerful interest groups like the American Association of Retired Persons not to make a fuss about the proposed $ 270 billion in Medicare savings. He expended an inordinate amount of energy on getting reporters not to use the word "cut" to describe the savings since they were actually "reductions in the rate of increase." But it was hubristic to believe there would be little or no cost to taking on a popular entitlement.


At first, there was little response from voters, and Republicans thought they were really on to something. But they learned better in November, when it came time to pass an interim spending bill to keep the government running. House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer insisted that a temporary increase in Medicare premiums be added to the bill for arcane government bookkeeping reasons. This gave Clinton the opening to veto the bill, which shut the government down for the first time. Gingrich wised up. He wanted to get rid of the premium increase almost immediately, but came under enormous pressure to keep it in from Republican freshmen enraged at Clinton's shameless milking of the shutdown (remember the closing of the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore?) .


The more fundamental problem was the Republican negotiating strategy on the overall budget for 1996. The Republicans were so convinced of their righteousness and annoyed at Clinton's dissembling that they became ever more aggressive; they began with "no compromise" and moved quickly to "we'll close the government if we don't get what we want."


"If I were doing it all over again, we would consciously avoid the government shutdown," Gingrich recently told the Washington Post. "It was clearly a mistake." Still, before things turned sour, the GOP's obstinacy did yield some remarkable progress. Clinton began 1995 with no intention of supporting a balanced budget, advancing a proposal with $ 200 billion deficits for eternity. When Clinton's budget was brought to a vote in the Senate, not a single Democrat supported it.


Clinton later introduced a budget that would reach balance in 10 years and continued to move gradually toward the Republican position. On November 19, he said he would do what he and congressional Democrats had steadfastly maintained they would never do: agree to the Republican demand that any budget proposal reach balance by the year 2002, as judged by the Congressional Budget Office.


This was a monumental achievement and should have been credited as a victory for the GOP. But Republicans enjoyed no political advantage from pulling Clinton rightward; indeed, they were promptly declared the losers and by a 2-1 margin were blamed for the two government shutdowns. Gingrich now says he miscalculated in thinking Clinton would cave in to the Republicans and sign a balanced budget then and there. But that analysis is a miscalculation too: Clinton did support a balanced budget, just not the balanced budget Republicans wanted him to support. The real miscalculation was the failure of House and Senate Republicans to split the difference between the Clinton budget and the GOP budget, declare victory, and go home. The blame for this does fall squarely on the shoulders of Gingrich and the 73 freshmen (though even Bob Dole cautioned in September 1995 that "this will not be an autumn of compromise").


Gingrich's obduracy during the budget negotiations is forgivable -- the administration's conduct really was appalling throughout -- but that can't be said of the weird mistake he made on November 15 with an improvised remark that probably did the greatest long:term damage to him and his party. At a breakfast with reporters, Gingrich foolishly revealed that he had sent the White House a "tougher" interim spending bill than he had originally thought he would, out of pique. Clinton had refused to negotiate on the flight back from the Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, Gingrich said, and then made Republicans exit out the back door of Air Force One.


Gingrich was asking for a spanking, and he got one: "CRY BABY," screamed the New York Daily News the next day, complete with a sketch of Gingrich in a diaper. There's no exaggerating the importance of Gingrich's quip. It transformed what appeared to be a principled disagreement over government spending into a petty political dispute and crystallized national opposition to the Republican budget effort.


Lost in the flurry of attention to the gaffe was an equally embarrassing comment Gingrich made the same morning: "The public relations fight [over the budget] is easy. That's why we've ignored it." There's a word for that: hubris. The last two years have offered a daily reminder that virtually any political undertaking requires not just a precise legislative strategy but also an understanding of how to deal with deceitful attacks on your ideas.


Republicans certainly could not have anticipated the $ 35 million attack from Big Labor; it was unprecedented. But GOP strategists realize that they lacked the all-important firepower of outside interest groups to make the case for them on issues like the balanced budget and Medicare. It wasn't for lack of trying; countless appeals were made to an array of business groups that were asked to fund an aggressive advertising campaign. Ask top Republicans today about corporate groups like The Coalition or the Business Roundtable, and you'll be greeted with a string of expletives or sighs of disappointment. During the shutdowns, the House GOP leaders sought to coordinate a business-funded advertising campaign, but they only managed to raise a fraction of what they wanted. "Big business fell down on the job," says Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary.


That's not entirely fair. Both business types and party activists worked their hearts (and wallets) out on the Contract With America. Their resources and their enthusiasm were burned out by the time the first hundred days came to an end. They were further depressed by the fact that after all their work, only two of the nine items had actually been signed into law. This suggests another reason why the too-much-too-soon strategy was so misguided, and why we shall not see its like again.


Gingrich failed to understand that political enthusiasm is not in inexhaustible supply. It has to be replenished. It needs victories, not just battles.


So bruised by the experience of 1995 were Republicans that they capitulated to Clinton in September and passed a flurry of legislation -- including a $ 6 billion spending increase and new health-care mandates -- they would have laughed at the year before. It was a triumph for GOP moderates and liberals, and a sobering reminder that politicians in trouble always resort to the government checkbook to find a way out. "I think the next two years will be like the last six months of the 1996 session," liberal Republican representative Jim Leach told the Washington Post last week. That would be unfortunate too.


And yet, when all is said and done, Republicans did maintain their hold on Congress and did reshape Washington's political environment in their favor. The challenge now is for Republicans to apply the lessons of the past two years to the next two: Walk, do not run, to the nearest realignment.




By Matthew Rees