As the new Congress settles in under Republican control, it can be easy to forget that Republican control of the House of Representatives is a relatively novel concept. Until Newt Gingrich's revolution swept the party into power in 1994, the GOP was accustomed to permanent-minority status.
If you've forgotten that, then Newt Gingrich will happily remind you, most recently in his recent "Conversation with Bill Kristol," produced by the Foundation for Constitutional Government. But for all of the interesting historical moments highlighted in their wide-ranging discussion, my particular favorite pertains to a moment in 1984 when Gingrich and then-Congressman Trent Lott sent the House's Democratic leadership reeling.
Gingrich had come to make regular use of "special orders" -- the end-of-day sessions in which he would address not fellow congressmen in the House chamber (for there were none), but rather the viewers watching at home on the new cable channel, C-SPAN.
As Gingrich recalls in his conversation with Kristol, the majority Democrats were much slower than the insurgent Republicans to recognize the power of these C-SPAN addresses. But Democrats certainly took note of two speeches Gingrich gave in May 1984, criticizing Democrats' softness on Communism, their rhetorical support for Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas, and the Boland amendment's restrictions on Reagan administration support for the rebel Contras.
The debate reached a fever pitch on May 15, 1984, when Speaker Tip O'Neill took the floor to denounce Gingrich. As C-SPAN recorded for posterity, the speaker jabbed his finger at Gingrich, bellowing an accusation:
"My personal opinion is this: You deliberately stood in that well, before an empty House, and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism, and it's the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress."
Before Gingrich could reply, Rep. Lott jumped to his feet. Recognizing that the speaker's personal attack went too far, he asked the presider to "take down" O'Neill's words -- to expunge them, an extraordinary censure. Lott's successful move was not merely a procedural win for the GOP -- it stood for something much bigger. As RealClearPolitics's Carl Cannon recounted last year:
"The donnybrook, which lasted over several days, was ostensibly about U.S. foreign policy. But what was really at stake was which political party controlled the microphone in the House of Representatives -- and in this country."
Republicans increasingly seized the national microphone. And finally, a decade later, they seized the House gavel.
We can thank C-SPAN for recording the event and maintaining the footage online. (As Cannon notes, "thanks to C-SPAN, nothing can really be stricken from the record.") But we also can be grateful for Gingrich and others sitting down to recount those stories for us today, lest the source material be left to gather dust in the C-SPAN archives.