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.”
But still, there are clear parallels between the two moments: a pair of GOP takeovers, each determined to alter the country’s fundamental course. And historians say that they have seen enough of Boehner’s loose approach to appreciate the advantages of Gingrich’s tough one.
Gingrich took over as speaker in 1995, after leading Republicans to their first House majority in 40 years. His hallmark — at least at the beginning — was discipline.
“The difference is that Gingrich had managed to focus the anger of the Republican Party on clear, specific legislative goals,” said Steven Gillon, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has watched Gingrich’s career. “Whereas, the Republicans in this Congress are simply angry.”
Gingrich had a simple standard for longtime legislators who were seeking his blessing to become committee chairmen, said former congressman Robert Walker (R-Pa.). “Are you going to enact exactly what we put in the contract, or not?” Gingrich would ask. “If you can’t do it, I’ll find somebody who can.”
Boehner, by contrast, has allowed both chairmen and rank-and-file members much greater autonomy on legislation.
That has led to some embarrassing failures, as Boehner’s caucus failed to support him on key votes. Current leaders have also been unable to deliver on sections of the Pledge to America: a promise to “replace” Obama’s health-care law has stalled, as has another to hold a vote on a different, voter-chosen spending cut every week.
But Boehner’s allies say the new speaker has found a smarter model for the long term.
“I don’t think you’ll see happen to John Boehner what happened to Newt,” since the rank-and-file is happier and more empowered, said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who served in the House during Gingrich’s tenure. “He tries to be inclusive, sometimes to the frustration of some in his leadership, but that’s his style, and I think that’s more sustainable over time.”
Another difference between the two revolutions is in the number of their demands.
In the 1990s, the Contract with America proposed reforms across a broad range of topics, including welfare, Medicare, criminal sentencing and teen pregnancy.
The idea, one former aide said, was copied from “Missile Command” — a title from the Bronze Age of video games. Like the attackers in the game, Republicans would rain down so many big ideas that Clinton couldn’t stop them all.
It worked, at least partly. After a first year of battling one another — culminating in the government shutdowns in the winter of 1995-96 — Gingrich and Clinton then cut major deals to reform welfare and balance the federal budget.
During the current Congress, by contrast, the GOP has focused on a narrower range of issues. They have demanded the repeal of President Obama’s health-care law. They have called for a Medicare overhaul. And they have demanded large cuts in federal spending.
So far, they have attained just one of those.
In August, Obama signed off on a plan to cut $2 trillion over a decade. But to extract that concession, House Republicans threatened not to raise the national debt ceiling.
In the last revolution, Gingrich brought on his own end: Once in power, his best qualities became his worst ones. Clinton used Gingrich’s self-confidence to entice him into compromises — convincing him that they were important men doing important things together.
“I melt when I’m around him,” Gingrich said then. Conservatives seethed.
And Gingrich’s wide-ranging ideas, according to other legislators, sometimes morphed into an unedited and distracting torrent. One of Gingrich’s oddball notions was recalled on Thursday by former Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.): Gingrich wanted GOP candidates to carry around ice buckets in 1996, to remind voters that they had ended the perk of free ice deliveries for Congressmen.
“Newt would show up at the campaign headquarters with an empty ice-bucket in his hand,” Dole recalled, in a letter released by the Romney campaign. “That was a symbol of some sort for him — and I never did know what he was doing or why he was doing it.”
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman, in Mount Dora, Fla., contributed to this report.