In 1995, that GOP-led House passed 302 bills in its first year, laying out plans to reform welfare, presidential veto power and criminal sentencing. The current House passed less than 200 bills. Its best-known achievement was an agreement to keep paying the national debt.
On the presidential campaign trail, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is being roasted for the way he led that first Republican surge. Former colleagues have said Gingrich became a meddling bully, constantly distracted by his own brainstorms.
But on Capitol Hill, his revolution is looking more remarkable in hindsight.
That’s because the current GOP leadership — trying to prove that it could succeed without Gingrich’s top-down, micromanaged style — could wind up proving the opposite instead.
The reward for their loose, anti-Gingrich management style has been embarrassing rebellions by the rank-and-file and a dearth of real-world accomplishments. This has been the bitter lesson: Running a revolution is hard.
And Gingrich, for all his flaws, somehow made it work for a while.
“We got the agenda. He was a good leader for that time,” said former congressman George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who served from 1995 to 2005. “When we started losing elections — you know, after the [government shutdown] — that’s when the confidence level dropped on Newt Gingrich.”
Fodder for campaign
This past week, the campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — Gingrich’s chief rival for the GOP nomination — served up Republican legislators to blast Gingrich’s time as speaker.
“He could not get elected speaker of the House right now,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), a Romney supporter, told The Washington Post this week. Chaffetz took office in 2009, 10 years after Gingrich left Congress under pressure from unhappy conservatives. “He is an unreliable leader who was pushed out the door.”
The job is different now: Current speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), faces an array of problems that Gingrich did not.
Gingrich had shaped the campaign that took the House: New members felt they owed their jobs to him. With Boehner, it was the other way around — the rowdy, anti-establishment tea party movement helped elect the members who put him in charge in 2011. Now, some members have calculated it is less risky to defy the speaker than to defy backers at home.
Also, Gingrich faced a sometimes-resistant Republican Senate, but Boehner must deal with a far less cooperative Democratic one. And Republicans say President Obama is far less open to dealmaking than President Bill Clinton was in Gingrich’s time.
“There is not a willing partner here, and that’s a story we’re going to have to tell,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said this week. “We’ve begun to change, we need willing partners to help us continue on that change.”