Lessons from the '94 Hill Power Shift Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) offers his thoughts on what can be learned from the changes on Capitol Hill that followed a sweeping Republican congressional victory in 1994.
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Lessons from the '94 Hill Power Shift

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Lessons from the '94 Hill Power Shift

Lessons from the '94 Hill Power Shift

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When Republicans took control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, they had an ambitious agenda. In the first weeks and months of the 104th Congress, they set out to fulfill the promise they had made to voters in their Contract with America.

Representative Tom Davis of Virginia was one of the Republicans who took his seat in this heady days and was reelected again on Tuesday. He joins us now. Congressman Davis, so good to have you with us.

Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): Pleasure to be with you.

NEARY: So looking back on those early days, what exactly did the Republicans do right in terms of moving forward with their agenda and working with this party that had been in power for so long?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, you know, we had a contract and that kept everybody occupied for the first four months, just getting the legislation through, whether it was liability reform, whether it was tax cuts, whether it was unfunded mandates reform. There were a series of things.

And we brought everything to a vote, which is all the contract called for. And I think all but a couple of items passed the House. Now, some of them got enacted into law. Some of them, you know, went the way of vetoes. Some of them went the way of the Senate, which is a big black hole legislatively.

The problem was after you go through that, is things start falling apart after a while, and the Senate gets close. And you know, over 12 years revolutions wear and issues change.

NEARY: But in those first weeks and months how would you characterize the attitude of Republicans towards both their fellow members of Congress who were Democrats and a president who was Democratic. What was the - was it conciliatory? Was it cooperative?

Rep. DAVIS: No. I think they've been out in wilderness for 40 years and I think we're charge now and I think it was, you know, get with us or get out of the way. We did have a number of bipartisan votes. I mean we attracted a number of Democrats. But it was confrontational with the administration. I think what our leadership forgot is that there was a president and that he had vetoes and that Congress wasn't running the show, that the president still had a lot of power.

And I always noted that in 1994 the voters elected us to protect him from Bill Clinton and two years later they elected Clinton to protect him from us. In a way we kind of read this mandate for change as a philosophical change and it wasn't necessarily so.

NEARY: Now, you said that the Republicans of the 104th Congress said we've been out in the wilderness for a while, it's our party now, and we're going to move ahead with our agenda...

Rep. DAVIS: Yup. We're going to move ahead...

NEARY: Is that what the Democrats should be doing now as well?

Rep. DAVIS: No. I think the Democrats understand that - look, the Republican Congress started to go downhill when they shut the government down in a confrontation with President Clinton. And Clinton was a far better politician than our congressional leaders, and they lost that confrontation. You know, we almost lost the House in 1996. If it weren't for some campaign finance scandals against the administration in the closing weeks, I think we would have lost the House right away, although there was some permanency to the coalitions that we had put together. Even today it's still a very closely divided country, and so I think the Democrats need to be careful about overreacting. But on the other hand, they're going to have to satisfy their base with some legislative achievements or at least getting them to the president's desk.

NEARY: Republicans are now in the reverse position. They're the party that is out of power. Can you look back to the 104th Congress and learn any lessons from what the Democrats did back then?

Rep. DAVIS: It really wasn't about the Democrats. In the House in particular, the majority rules. You can, as a minority member, you can decide you want to get with the program and see if you can get a few scraps for your district and maybe win a few points on legislation that you might not otherwise agree with and be part of the process, or you sit there and vote no and put up votes, controversial votes that will help you in the next election. One speaker of the House said the minority's job is to help make a quorum and collect their paycheck.

NEARY: So do you as a Republican just sit back and wait for the Democrats to make a mistake?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I mean I'm going to try to work with them where I think they're doing the right thing. And where I don't, then you sit there and you do the best that you can. But ultimately for the voters, the next election's going to be around the presidential campaign. That will be the dictating atmospherics of both the House and Senate elections next time, will be around the different presidential candidates. So the Democrats have about a year to maneuver and to try to get things done. After that it moves into presidential politics and things slow down pretty quickly. But from my perspective, hey, I'm happy to work with the Democrats on any number of issues where I think that we can make some progress together. And if they invite me to the table, I'm going to show up.

NEARY: Thanks so much for talking with us, Congressman Davis.

Rep. DAVIS: Thank you.

NEARY: Tom Davis is a Republican congressman from Virginia.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: You can find election results and much, much more on our Web site npr.org.

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