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TOO MUCH TOO SOON

Newt Gingrich and the 104th Congress

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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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.