A Partisan Edge That Cut Both Ways
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 1998; Page A21
The House of Representatives Newt Gingrich is leaving behind is not the same House in which he became speaker four years ago, let alone the one to which he was elected in 1978. His legacy will be felt not only by future members of Congress but by President Clinton, who surprisingly may miss Gingrich both as a partner and an antagonist.
Those are the observations of a number of the Georgian's colleagues of both parties and students of Congress, interviewed yesterday in the aftermath of Gingrich's surprise announcement that he would yield the speaker's gavel and, as he said, "move forward" to some other unspecified role in public life.
Although his tenure was shorter than many of his predecessors', his impact on the House and American politics may prove to be much larger. His ascendancy marked not just a Republican resurgence but the certification of the South as the new base of the GOP. He strengthened the speaker's authority, reduced the legislative discretion of committee chairmen, empowered backbenchers and helped make the House even more of a partisan cockpit than it had been before.
Some of those changes and perhaps all of them will last long after he has moved off Capitol Hill.
Ironically, many of those interviewed said, his departure may complicate life for Clinton. It robs the White House of its favorite target and at the same time deprives the president of a partner in the opposition party who was almost always willing to help on tough international issues and at least occasionally in cutting domestic policy deals.
Gingrich was more than a two-term speaker. Except for a period of a few months in 1996 when he deferred to presidential nominee Robert J. Dole, he was the symbol and leader of the Republican party for all six years after it lost the White House. He rose on the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, the first Republican speaker from the South. And he fell in the wake of an election that almost wiped out its narrow majority in the House.
Whoever succeeds him, said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a Gingrich friend and ally, "the next leader will not be as strong as Newt or as capable of making dramatic moves. Being party leader as well as speaker is perilous. The House members got tired of that. It was too big a burden defending him all the time. The next speaker will run the House period and we won't have a party leader until we nominate our presidential candidate."
The change will be felt at the White House as well as on Capitol Hill. Ever since Gingrich led the new Republican majority in a budget confrontation that shut down major parts of the federal government over the Christmas holidays in 1995, he has been the bogeyman Democrats have used to raise money and roll up the vote. In 1996, Clinton ran for reelection against a mythical opponent named "DoleGingrich," and again this year, it was Gingrich's backstage management of the impeachment proceedings against Clinton that Democrats used to rally the troops.
But the reverse of that coin, as former representative Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), another Gingrich intimate, put it, is that "Clinton loses someone he can make a deal with." When it came time to negotiate agreements whether it was welfare reform in 1996 or budget-balancing in 1997 Gingrich's signature was necessary. "Trent Lott can still deal for the Senate," Walker observed, "but he can't deliver the House."
That difference may be particularly crucial when it comes to foreign policy an area where Gingrich often has been more cooperative than Lott. Gingrich, a student of history who spent part of his youth in France, offered what Thomas E. Mann, the Brookings Institution scholar on Congress, called "instinctive, patriotic support to a president of the opposite party on the big international questions of trade and foreign policy. There aren't many like him around." A White House official said that similar concern already had been raised in staff discussions, anticipating issues arising next year on everything from trade negotiating authority to the use of the CIA to monitor terrorism in the Middle East.
The men seeking to succeed Gingrich, including the apparent front-runner, Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), are, one House Democratic leadership official observed, "much more in the Tom Foley mold," a reference to the last Democratic speaker, who rarely sought the limelight and contented himself with grinding out bills.
Whether they will have the clout to move bills in a House with a six-vote GOP majority, riven by differences between social issue conservatives and moderates, is another question.
Walker said: "Newt had no peers in the Republican Party, so when it came time to get something done, he could usually do it, even if he had to force the process. The problem for the next speaker is that he will have many peers, people who think they are on the same level, with the same power, and they will try to drive agendas and muster forces themselves."
A senior House Democrat said he too feared the relative feebleness of the incoming GOP leadership. "The person who gets elected will have to promise both the conservatives and the moderates privately he will do more for them than Newt did. He will be beholden to them, rather than their owing him anything. I'm not sure he can afford to take many risks."
Kenneth Duberstein, a lobbyist who looked after congressional relations as chief of staff in the Reagan White House, said he was more hopeful. "Certainly it will be a very bumpy road for whoever is speaker, but if they get off the ground with an across-the-board tax cut, privatization of Social Security and pass the appropriations bills in timely fashion, they can unify themselves."
Weber, on the other hand, said, "I think it means precious little gets accomplished this Congress except for routine appropriations bills. I'd like to think that the closeness of the party division would force cooperation on issues like Social Security. I haven't given up on it, but I wouldn't predict it."
One reason Gingrich's departure may create a larger vacuum than the change, say, from Jim Wright (D-Tex.) to Foley in 1989, is that Gingrich centralized power in the speakership far more than any of those Democratic predecessors since Sam Rayburn. "Starting with the 'Contract with America,'‚" Mann said, "he created the notion that the agenda for the House, and for each of its committees, was set by the party leadership meaning himself."
Gingrich broke the precedent of seniority determining committee chairmanships, skipping over several more experienced members to make Livingston head of Appropriations, for example.
He also picked junior members of unusual promise for spots on key policy panels. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was starting his second term in 1995 when a vacancy opened on the Ways and Means Committee. "Traditionally, the Ohio delegation would have decided who got the seat on the basis of seniority among the claimants," Portman said. "There were three senior to me, but Newt just said he wanted me in that spot."
The treatment Portman received was emblematic of the way Gingrich reached around the hierarchy of the House to empower junior members. It was expressed in many ways, including his efforts to move the House into the electronic age, where even a freshman member could monitor activity from his desk and register his reaction to bills as they took form.
Ironically, it was the revolt of some of those same members, who complained that he had backed away from some of the goals of the "revolution" or had stirred too much personal controversy, which undercut his position and led to Friday's decision to step down.
Yet, Republicans came to depend on his leadership whether they agreed with his instincts or not. In the 104th Congress of 1995-96, Gingrich wielded the Contract With America to insist that legislation reflect the party's agenda. But even in the last Congress, when committee chairmen began to reassert their prerogatives, Gingrich still flexed his muscle.
In one case, Gingrich virtually ordered House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) to suspend negotiations on a tobacco bill with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), because he did not like the shape their legislation was taking and Bliley complied.
The overthrow of the old order in the House was signaled on Gingrich's first day as speaker, when a package of radical rules changes was approved in a marathon session that ran well past midnight. The most consequential change set a six-year limit on tenure of committee chairmen and an eight-year limit for the speaker. That was a factor in Livingston's decision to challenge for the speakership, the precipitating event in Friday's swift march toward Gingrich's decision. It promises further upheaval or opportunity for advancement every two years as long as it is in effect.
The rules also cut the size of committee staffs, banned proxy voting by absentee members and applied federal employment and antidiscrimination laws to Congress itself. Although none of the rules had been passed during the Democrats' 40-year span of control, many drew bipartisan majorities and are likely to survive even when Democrats regain the majority.
But in other respects, Gingrich's tenure marked a further rush toward partisanship in the House, not just in his being disciplined by the House in 1997 and forced to pay a $300,000 penalty, but in a consistent pattern of party-line voting.
With the House balance of power between the parties even narrower now than it has been during Gingrich's four years, that sharp partisan edge may be his most lasting legacy.
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