When House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his troops took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, he vowed to "replace the welfare state with an opportunity society." But five years later, the lasting legacy of the Gingrich revolution may have less to do with changing the face of government and more with changing the character of Congress.
As House Republicans prepare to mark their fifth anniversary of governing this week, many of their loftiest legislative ambitions have been thwarted. While they can certainly claim substantive achievements--such as balancing the budget and overhauling the welfare system--they've failed to enact a massive tax cut, eliminate the Education and Commerce departments, and overhaul the nation's environmental and tort laws. Gingrich, the architect of the GOP takeover, has been overthrown, and his messy divorce has made him something of an outcast even among his once fierce partisans.
But the GOP's impact on the House as an institution appears likely to endure no matter which party is in charge on Capitol Hill, according to scholars and observers of Congress. The Republican leadership eliminated a decades-old patronage system for hiring, revamped the committee structure, applied federal laws to Congress, conducted an audit of the congressional books and balanced the chamber's budget for the first time in memory. And while Gingrich had once hoped to lead the country from the speaker's chair, some of the changes he set in motion may well diminish the legislative branch's power in the years to come by transferring power to state and local governments, the experts said.
"People don't look to the federal government anymore," said Robert Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University. "One day they're going to hold a Congress and nobody's going to come."
David W. Brady, a political scientist at Stanford University, said that by limiting the speaker and committee chairmen to six-year terms and cutting committee staff by one-third, the GOP significantly opened up a House that had long been dominated by a handful of powerful lawmakers.
"It made the House more democratic, less hierarchical and less dominated by the old bulls," said Brady, who also teaches at Stanford's business school. "It would be hard, if Democrats came back in, to go back to the old seniority system."
This week House Republicans are commemorating the Jan. 4 anniversary of their takeover fairly quietly, but they are tentatively planning a more celebratory bash next month. Their leaders say the party deserves a lot of credit for changing the free-spending ways of Congress. "It's a huge cultural shift in Washington for us to balance our budget and get our bills paid while not raising taxes or fees and not tapping the Social Security surplus," said House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.).
But with their majority in peril--only five seats now separate the Democrats from a return to power--many rank-and-file Republicans are sounding more chastened than boastful these days. Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.), one of the idealistic conservatives elected to Congress in 1994, said he and his colleagues were "naive" to expect immediate and dramatic shifts in policy.
"The whole notion that there could be revolutionary changes in Washington involved a very simplistic way of looking at how government works," Sanford said. "Our Founding Fathers designed a system to guard against that which we were promising, which was revolutionary change."
Today's modest rhetoric is a stark contrast from the guerrilla warrior style favored by House GOP lawmakers five years ago. Then Gingrich seemed on the brink of usurping presidential prerogative, stealing a page from FDR's playbook with his "first 100 days" legislative agenda and prompting President Clinton to insist he was still "relevant" in the aftermath of the 1994 elections.
On their first day in office on Jan. 4, 1995, House Republicans adopted a series of measures changing the way Congress works. They passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which imposed labor, health and safety standards on the Capitol and allowed U.S. Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol employees to unionize for the first time. They launched a Web site through the Library of Congress that gave citizens direct access to legislation and floor debates.
Even Democrats now embrace these changes. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, noted in an interview that his party had put into motion some of the internal reforms Republicans carried out once they seized the majority. But he added that he welcomed many of the changes the GOP has put in place, and would preserve them if Democrats won the 2000 elections.
"We needed to get the ministerial operations of the House much more like a business," Hoyer said.
Republicans also demolished several age-old congressional perks with glee, firing congressional "doorkeepers" who had won their posts through patronage, banning gifts from lobbyists and eliminating the ice buckets that appeared in front of each House office's door every morning.
Gingrich even brandished an ice bucket on the campaign trail in 1996, and used the chilly object as symbol of fiscal austerity in ads for that year's elections. But the GOP's enthusiasm for budget-cutting backfired dramatically in late 1995, when a standoff with the president over annual spending prompted government shutdowns.
"That was the defining moment for them," said University of Rochester political science professor Richard F. Fenno. "It showed how little they knew about what it meant to govern."
The fact that Democrats have controlled the White House for the past five years has also hampered the GOP's ability to enact broad policy changes. University of Wisconsin professor emeritus Charles O. Jones said the past few years have shown how divided government works, with each side winning political fights only after making some concessions.
"You've got to deal in order to win. It means that nobody gets your way," Jones said, adding that the shift from Gingrich to new Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) symbolizes a new, more compromise-oriented legislative process. "Hastert is almost the model kind of leader for the repair job they have to do. He's an inside operator, whereas Gingrich was an outside operator."
Although most of the planks in the House GOP's "Contract With America" failed to make it into law, a fruitful period of legislative activity did come in 1996, when Congress and Clinton brokered deals on revamping welfare, raising the minimum wage and overhauling telecommunications laws. But the scandal over Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and the impeachment proceedings that followed poisoned the political atmosphere.
Even though most legislative action has since ground to a halt, GOP lawmakers have had some success in altering the relationship between the federal government and state and local governments. In 1998, for example, they took vocational education funds, which now total $1.1 billion, and converted them into block grants, allowing states greater freedom in how they spend the money. That same year they loosened the restrictions on how states distributed federal funds for job training.
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce I. Oppenheimer said those changes, along with other reforms such as blocking unfunded government mandates and altering the committee system, have reduced the legislative branch's influence compared with the chief executive's. By scaling back some of Congress's activities and dismantling the mini-fiefdoms that Democrats had used to bully the executive branch, he said, lawmakers are ceding ground to presidents who tend to expand bureaucracy.
"In the long run, what they've done is weakened Congress vis-a-vis the president. That's been largely ignored," Oppenheimer said. "The problem is throughout American history presidents have been the ones who add power to the national government and Congress has been the one to resist that."
The fact that some federal responsibilities have been shifted to the states provides conservatives such as Sanford with some comfort, though he is still fixated on the fact that the federal government has continued to grow since he took office.
"All you can hope is to pull in one direction," Sanford said. "We pulled the system slightly, and I mean ever so slightly, in our direction."
CAPTION: House Speaker Newt Gingrich displays the "Contract With America" at 1995 meeting.