The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before Joe Scarborough left the GOP, he led a congressional revolt and tried to cut ties with the U.N.

"Morning Joe" co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski joined Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show." Scarborough announced that he could no longer support the Republican Party because of its allegiance to President Trump. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Charles Joseph Scarborough stood behind the House lectern as he delivered a one-minute impassioned attack on President Bill Clinton.

He extended his arms to emphasize a point, raised his voice as he balled his right hand into a fist, and used sarcasm as he criticized the man whose election he disliked so much that he decided to run for office two years before.

He said, in part:

This truly is the do-nothing president. His people are telling the White House, 'Do nothing, stand in the road, block progress, fight a balanced budget at all costs. That's what you need to do, Mr. President. Be firm! Do nothing. And your poll points will go up. Well, maybe they actually will. And I don't really care whether his poll points go up or not. The fact of the matter is, we have put on the table the first balanced budget in a generation. And if the president wants to continue standing in the way of that, fine. We're going to balance this budget with or without him.

It was Jan. 4, 1996.

The federal government had been shut down for nearly three weeks, as the Clinton administration and the Republican-led House struggled to reach a budget deal. And Scarborough was a fresh-faced 32-year-old congressman from Florida who was among a handful of conservatives pushing hard against the Clinton White House in the budget showdown. Two years earlier, he was part of a class of new Republicans elected as the party gained control of the House and the Senate for the first time in four decades.

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Scarborough, whose parents ran beauty pageants in Florida and who practiced law in Pensacola, Fla., didn't have previous government experience. But he seemed to fit right in.

Long before he became a cable-news figure and two decades before he decided to leave the Republican Party, Scarborough was one of the leaders of the New Federalists, a group of eager and outspoken young conservatives who took a hard line against government spending. Among the group's agenda items, according to a 2006 profile by the New Republic: the elimination of four Cabinet departments, huge cuts in congressional staff and term limits.

“Whatever it took to strip power from Washington, the New Federalists were prepared to do it,” former New Republic writer Noam Scheiber wrote.

But the group was not always successful.

Shortly after Scarborough's speech, the government shutdown ended. Clinton won the budgetary tug-of-war, and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich caved. Scarborough recalled Sam Brownback, then also a freshman congressman and self-appointed leader of the New Federalists, consoling him on the House floor after the defeat.

“Sam came up and put his hand on my shoulder. He said. 'Don't worry, Joe. Even Rome wasn't burnt in a day,' " according to the New Republic profile.

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As the self-described “bad boys” of the Republican caucus, the New Federalists also revolted against Gingrich. And Scarborough was at the forefront. In a public display of opposition against senior members of the House in March 1997, he and 10 other young Republicans blocked a $22 million increase in financing for 19 House committees, according to the New York Times.

“If they want us to continue to vote with them and salute them in the future, they are going to have to do better,” Scarborough said of the House leadership, the Times reported.

Known to break from his own party, Scarborough described himself as “almost libertarian” on economic issues and “quirky on human rights, China, the environment,” he told New York Magazine years after he left Congress.

“Republicans couldn't figure out which way I was going to break on votes. They finally just gave up whipping me,” he told the magazine.

As congressman, Scarborough called for ending corporate welfare and aid to large tobacco and sugar companies, and opposed offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, among other positions. He supported impeaching Clinton, eliminating the U.S. Education Department and cutting AIDS funding.

He also viewed the United Nations as an inconsequential and irrelevant body, a “passive bystander, an expensive toy but hardly a critical tool.”

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, he introduced a bill that would end the United States' membership in the world governing body after a four-year transition period, The Washington Post reported.

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Thomas W. Lippman wrote for The Post:

He described himself in an interview as a thoughtful internationalist who has concluded that the United Nations has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. Just as European alliances formed at the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic wars dissolved as circumstances changed, Scarborough said, the time has come to scrap the United Nations and start over with an alliance of “like-minded liberal democracies.”

The bill died, but passing it was not his main goal. Scarborough said he wanted to show that a new world body was needed.

Policies and politics aside, Scarborough did not appear to be the stereotypical politician: He kept a coonskin cap in his office and liked to wear jeans on Fridays.

In 2001, Scarborough decided to resign to, according to him, spend more time with his children.

“The realization has come home to me that they're at a critical stage of their lives and I would rather be judged at the end of my life as a father than as a congressman,” Scarborough said, according to the Florida Times-Union.

The then-38-year-old, divorced from his first wife and with joint custody of their two young sons, had just been reelected to his fourth term a few months back.


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