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GOP Laments Mixed Results As Control of Congress Ends
Democrats were harsher -- but only by degrees. Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) pointed with disdain to former president Bill Clinton's impeachment, the Iraq war, the yawning federal debt, "a complete breakdown on oversight as well as civility," corruption and a "willingness to cede most of their authority as an equal branch of government" to the Bush administration.
"One would have to search long and hard through history to find a dozen years more disastrous than that," Daschle said.
Compared with the liberal ascendancy, which ran from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and arguably Ronald Reagan's election, the conservative era has been brief and relatively inconsequential, said Julian Zelizer, a Boston University congressional historian. Nothing in the past 12 years compares with the creation of Social Security or Medicare, the voting rights and civil rights acts, the Marshall Plan or Dwight D. Eisenhower's interstate highway system. Nor were any of those big-government achievements fundamentally altered.
Far from ending an imperial Congress, Republicans centralized power in their leadership to an unprecedented level.
Even some successes -- such as a balanced budget and the diminution of farm subsidies -- proved short-lived, GOP lawmakers and former leaders conceded.
Republicans did take pride in a few achievements. In numerous interviews, virtually every lawmaker pointed to the 1996 welfare overhaul as the pinnacle of Republican achievement, followed closely by the 1997 balanced-budget agreement, which introduced private-sector competition to Medicare and helped yield a federal budget surplus the next year. In a memo to fellow Republicans, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) pointed to lower tax rates on income and investments, education laws that expanded parental school choice and targeted funding to schools that succeed, the expansion of free trade, the confirmation of conservative judges and Supreme Court justices, and laws to help pursue terrorists and strengthen the military.
"The common thread through all of these achievements is the Republican commitment to individual freedom, personal responsibility, and accountable government," Boehner wrote.
But in general, Republicans were in no mood to cheer. Instead, they took turns trying to pinpoint where things went wrong. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who came to the House in the class of 1994, pointed to setting supposedly strict spending caps in the 1997 budget deal, only to break them in 1998. Former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) took the same vein when he fingered the summer of 1997 and the first emergency spending bill that was not offset with equivalent spending cuts.
"That was the day we said: 'Discipline is too hard, too demanding. It makes people mad that have volatile tempers, and we're just not going to do it anymore,' " Armey said.
Wamp had his specific moment, June 27, 2003, when emissaries from the GOP leadership woke him in the middle of the night, pleading with him to change his vote against the Medicare prescription drug bill, the largest entitlement expansion since the creation of Medicare. House leaders kept the vote open more than an hour, setting a record as they twisted arms, threatened and even told one member that political support for his son was at stake.
"It looked like we were in the back pockets of the prescription drug companies, and some of us were," Wamp said, concluding that Republican leaders had forgotten about conservative principals and cared only for the preservation of power.
Referring to the former House majority leader, Wamp recalled: "If Tom DeLay said it one time, he said it 15 times: 'The most important thing we can do for the American people is keep our Republican majority.' That was just wrong, and it had to catch up to us in the end."
The leaders of the revolution agreed that the past 12 years hardly cemented the conservative visions of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and the class of 1994. But Armey said that it is far too early to close the books on a conservative era.
"I still expect to see a fourth golden moment in my lifetime," he said. "We've got a bit of a setback here, but we're going to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger. We'll be back."