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.
Paradoxically, the separation of powers not only provides for the institutional independence of the president and Congress, but simultaneously makes them dependent on each other. Madison understood that different institutions do different things. This differentiation of functions at the heart of the separation of powers makes each branch better at doing its own thing. The separation of powers limits the abuse of power, but it also provides for the effective use of power. Finally, the competition between the two political branches can inject energy into the policy process.
We hear much today about how both Democrats and Republicans have been " chastened" and how they've "learned" from the failings of the 103rd and 104th Congresses. Both parties can, and should, learn a great deal by heeding the separation of powers. Note the natural rhythm of elections in the 1990s: Had George Bush not lost the White House in 1992, House Republicans would not have won a majority in 1994. Had they not won in 1994, Clinton's second two years would have been as dismal (and as liberal) as his first two years. And Clinton's 1996 victory virtually guarantees substantial gains for congressional Republicans in 1998.
Given the House GOP's erstwhile fondness for revolutionary rhetoric, an apt description of the 1996 election might be Lenin's "two steps forward, one step back." Or, as that famous House Republican revolutionary Sonny Bono might say, "The beat goes on." The "six-year itch" will almost certainly strengthen GOP control of Congress beyond the 1998 midterm elections.
Ideas matter. Ideas have practical political consequences, especially ideas embodied in our constitutional institutions. Following the 1996 election, Bill Clinton is president, Newt Gingrich is speaker, and James Madison still rules America.
William F. Connelly, Jr. is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. He co-authored with John J. Pitney, Jr. Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House.