HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH believes ideas have consequences. During the 104th Congress he sought to use the bully pulpit of the speakership to "set the intellectual framework" of political discourse in America. Now this former history professor has made history. To Gingrich goes much of the credit for the first reelection of a House Republican majority since 1928, along with the credit and blame for the successes and failures of the 104th Congress. For that reason we may want to take seriously his Ideas.
In the speaker's thought, one hears clear echoes of the Anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution 200 years ago. The Anti-Federalists were suspicious of executive power and skeptical of the magisterial tendencies of the presidency ("This Constitution squints toward monarchy," in Patrick Henry's phrase). They were the legislative supremacists of their day, though they were wary enough of the aristocratic proclivities of the Senate. Gingrich similarly sought to institute "congressional government" during the 104th Congress, with the House as its center of gravity. And the very idea of a Contract With America echoes the Anti-Federalist call for accountability in government. The Anti-Federalists wanted "citizen legislators," not career politicians; they favored "rotation" in office, the functional equivalent of term limits.
The Anti-Federalists were, in fact, federalists. They wanted government close to the people and feared a strong national government. No doubt they would cheer Republican efforts to devolve power to state and local governments. Ironically, today's House GOP faction calling itself the "New Federalists" should strictly be the "New Anti-Federalists," as no doubt historian Gingrich could tell them.
But the Anti-Federalists lost the ratification debate 200 years ago. Today we are governed by James Madison's Constitution. And in this confusion lies an intellectual error that explains the most serious failure of the House Republican revolutionaries in the 104th Congress: They misunderstood the constitutional separation of powers.
Speaker Gingrich thought he could create "congressional government" within existing insitutions. Indeed, he thought he was returning our constitutional system to some mythic natural condition of legislative supremacy. He often pointed to the golden age of supposed legislative dominance in the late 19th century. In the heady days of 1995, Gingrich acted as if he had in fact created parliamentary government, with the speaker as prime minister. The president, and even the Senate, were irrelevant, House Republicans insisted. Gingrich tried to govern from the House. More important, he temporarily convinced America that he had recreated congressional government; indeed, he convinced us that the House was the government pure and simple. Consequently, whom did America blame when the government shut down? Normally we would blame the president if the lights went out in Washington, but after being told that we were watching congressional government in action, the country blamed the House Republicans.
Perhaps the fatal manifestation of the House GOP's error was the decision to take on Medicare without holding the presidency. This left the Republicans open to Clinton's shameless medagoguery. The bully pulpit of the presidency still trumps the bully pulpit of the speakership. More to the point, Congress cannot ignore the constitutional authority of the president, including most obviously the veto.
Congress and the president need each other. They are two halves of a whole; neither is a complete policymaking institution unto itself. Each brings its peculiar virtues to the relationship. The executive can act with energy, dispatch, and direction. Congress is deliberate. Congress is very good at talking, at second-guessing the executive and equivocating. Congress is good at watching the executive, at providing oversight. But Congress is at a disadvantage when it comes to action. Congress is responsive to the multiplicity of interests and opinions in the nation. As a consequence, it is often open to the charge of being run by special interests. But Congress is also a good incubator of ideas, including ideas borrowed by presidents. Congress is creative chaos and poor at appealing to public affections. The people want presidents to discipline the disorderly legislature.