Congress, 10 Years after the Gingrich Revolution

Congress arrived for work last week, took the oath of office and held a few confirmation hearings. Then most of the members left town. Many went on codels, Hillspeak for congressional delegations: groups of members trooping off to find facts. Some of these sojourns are arduous tours of the front (Iraq, Afghanistan, the tsunami devastation), others little more than junkets.

Codels are something of a January tradition, filling the gap between swearing-in day and the State of the Union address (or the Inauguration). And if there's one thing the Republican majorities in the House and Senate have come to appreciate, it's tradition.

Ten years ago this month, things were different. In that particular January, the new majority party in the House and Senate was not interested in getting out of town: It wanted to get busy running the town.

The previous November's elections had given the Republicans eight more seats in the Senate and 52 more in the House, overwhelming the previous Democratic majorities in both chambers. Suddenly, the GOP had complete congressional control for the first time since 1954.

The focus in those first, heady days was on the House. This chamber had been in Democratic hands for 40 consecutive years (and for all but four years since 1931). The Democrats' margins had usually been so lopsided that they had long since dismissed any thought of being in the minority.

What followed was a period of intense concentration on a pre-arranged agenda. The campaign in the fall of 1994 had featured a list of 10 items that 350 Republican candidates pledged to bring to a vote within 100 days if elected. They called their list their Contract with America.

It's never been clear how many voters were swayed by the Contract, but it soon became a symbol of the takeover. No surprise, then, that the newly empowered Republicans felt duty bound to follow their list of chores as promised. Their new speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, had his agenda ready made and his troops ready to do or die.

And do it they did, and ahead of schedule. In less than 100 days, every item on the Contract was adopted, enacted or passed by the House with the lone exception of term limits. On that issue the House managed a majority, but not the two-thirds required to amend the Constitution.

The new House endorsed a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto for the president. It required restitution for crime victims and the conversion of federal welfare programs into block grants for states to administer. It voted to cut taxes on capital gains and limited punitive damages in liability lawsuits and basically emptied the closet of stored-up Republican initiatives that had languished for years. Many of these pertained to the rules of the House itself.

What was most striking about the Contract, though, was not so much the substantive changes it wrought (many of which did not survive the Senate's rules or President Bill Clinton's veto) but the forced march by which they were achieved. The first day's session was a grueling 14 hours, 30 minutes. And the House not only kept up a full meeting schedule through the winter months, it often met five days a week and on occasional weekends.

Not for nothing was this called "the Gingrich Revolution."

But that was then. People don't use the word revolution very often on the Hill these days. Having maintained their majority through five election cycles, the House Republican leaders are increasingly confident of their position and permanence. And many of the presumptive old behaviors associated with the longtime Democratic majority have returned.

The current House leaders, particularly Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, have been busy lately rewarding the loyal and punishing apostates in distributing committee assignments and other goodies. And while they have had to back off some of their proposed changes in the ethics rules, they have moved to make future ethics investigations of members unlikely.

Rep. Zach Wamp, R-TN, a member of the Class of 1994, has noted that the first thing he and his classmates were asked to do 10 years ago was to tighten the code of ethics. This year's freshmen were asked to do just the opposite.

Nothing the current House leaders have done yet has been earth shaking, and none of it is likely to have political consequences anytime soon. But as this 10th anniversary of the revolution comes and goes, it is hard not to notice how far the pendulum has swung.

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