Congress rebuked but not reimagined


“If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.”

So pronounced the bottom line of a Republican National Committee ad, which laid out the Contract With America to TV Guide readers ahead of the 1994 midterm elections. The Contract promised that Republicans would, on their first day in the majority, “force Congress to live under the same laws as every other American,” cut congressional committee staff by one-third, and cut Congress’ budget. Then, in its first 100 days, the new majority would pass bills responding to 10 other priorities, including a number of substantive policy goals but also major institutional changes, namely a balanced budget amendment, a line-item veto, and term limits. As Newt Gingrich and other leading champions of the Contract made clear, they sought to reset policy but also to accomplish something grander: to change the way Washington did business. To enact a revolution.

With the benefit of a quarter-century of hindsight, how did the 104th Congress do?

Fulfilling the Letter of the Contract

The new GOP House honored the explicit commitments of the Contract to a remarkable degree. Technically that only meant taking votes on their legislative priorities, but they went much further, advancing nearly all of them out of the House. Right off the bat, the new majority slashed staff and eliminated three committees. On the first full day of the session, the House passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which made Congress subject to a variety of federal labor and workplace safety laws. The Senate quickly followed, and on January 23, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. Within the first 100 days, the House had passed bills advancing all but one of Republicans’ listed goals, with only term limits eluding them.

Of course, it is admirable to keep promises. But passing bills through the House accomplishes nothing in itself; it’s getting changes signed into law that matters.

When we turn to policy accomplishments, Republicans hit for a respectable batting average: Their balanced budget amendment died in the Senate in a close vote, they failed to reduce taxes, and they ran into Clinton’s veto on litigation reform (failing to override it on product liability, successfully overriding it on securities litigation). But they did work with Clinton to pass welfare reform. They also passed the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 in a bipartisan manner. And they got Clinton to concede a regulatory reform measure for small business and an increase in the allowable earnings limit on Social Security by attaching them to a debt limit increase in the Contract With America Advancement Act. In retrospect these victories, if not exactly revolutionary, seem worthy of respect.

But what about the push for the larger revolution—the idea that after the 104th Congress, everything would be different in Congress and for the D.C. establishment more generally?

Reforming the House’s Internal Operations

When they were in the minority, Republicans had frequently bemoaned the high-handed way in which Democrats ran the House to favor their own. Now that the GOP was in charge, there was a strong temptation to return to business as usual but with tables turned. Asked how the GOP would treat the new minority, incoming Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Archer (R-TX) said, “We will be at least as accommodating to them as they have been to us.” Many read the subtext as: “And not one iota more!” But Republicans passed up many opportunities for partisan score-settling in order to transform Congress into a more professional working environment. Part of their campaigning success came from denouncing the petty corruption exposed by the House Bank scandal and the House Post Office scandal; in both cases, members in charge of the House’s internal workings had allowed dollars to slosh around freely to benefit their friends and co-partisans. Ross Perot’s success in 1992 had come in part from depicting Washington insiders as addicted to cushy perquisites of office, and Republican reformers were genuinely committed to attacking these. Gingrich, in particular, was fond of saying that Congress should be treated like any normal business, including managing its account-books and procurement policies according to best practices.

Before ever winning in November, Republicans, led by soon-to-be-Majority Leader Dick Armey and Jim Nussle (R-IA), developed a transition plan devoted to nuts and bolts issues and especially staffing challenges. They ended some clearly anachronistic and wasteful amenities, including twice-daily deliveries of buckets of ice to each member’s office and in-house employment of typewriter repairmen. Alongside the existing Clerk and Sergeant at Arms, they also created a new position for a Chief Administrative Office (CAO) in the House. The idea to create a single, businesslike overseer of most of the House’s internal functions dated back to reform efforts of the late 1970s, but Democratic leaders had always resisted, believing that to the victor go the spoils. Republicans declared an end to this pattern. The House would adopt good business practices—no more making parking spaces political footballs, no more funny books and leaky funds, normal vendors running the House cafeterias.

That was the promise, anyway. The reality was somewhat messier; the first CAO made enemies on the new Committee on House Oversight (the name given, for the duration of the 104th Congress, to the Committee on House Administration) and was chased out, eventually writing a memoir called Naked Emperors: The Failure of the Republican Revolution. His gripes notwithstanding, these under-the-radar Republican reforms have been an enduring success on their own terms. When Democrats retook the House after the 2006 midterms, they did not return to the old ways. Indeed, the House today is a much more normal, businesslike workplace than it was before 1995.

Given today’s congressional stagnation, one might wonder, only a little tongue-in-cheek, whether the loss of petty corruption makes it harder for Congress to act as a compromise-facilitating body. After all, being able to offer members things they care about for petty personal reasons can help get them agree to do things that are politically difficult but good for the country. Perhaps if the favor economy can’t work in these small ways, it will end up expressing itself in more costly ways.

Arguably, this is what happened with the Republican majorities of the mid-2000s, which got hooked on distributing earmarks and cozying up to K Street. The next generation of GOP reformers, the Tea Partiers of 2010, came in determined to stamp out that sort of corruption and adopted an earmark moratorium that remains in place today. One might see that as a belated consummation of the Republican Revolution begun in 1994. But again, even if this policy has succeeded on its own terms, it is worth asking whether it has ultimately made Congress a less capable legislature. And in the case of earmarks, we must be mindful of the way unelected bureaucrats step in to play the allocative function that Congress has relinquished. If Congress is cleaner, that doesn’t mean the policymaking system as a whole necessarily is.

Congress’ Place in the Constitutional System

It is when we zoom out to consider the 104th Congress’ impact on America’s Constitutional system as a whole that its legacy becomes most ambiguous. The Republican Revolution undoubtedly changed things in Washington, but it hardly ushered in an age of responsible, accountable, decentralized government.

Republicans did not promise merely to clean up Congress—it was the whole D.C. establishment they aimed to disrupt. In their view, an unholy alliance of congressional staffers and unappointed agency personnel had conspired to frustrate the legitimate reform efforts of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Gingrich had been railing against these arrogant, unaccountable mandarins since before he was first elected to Congress in 1978; according to his rhetoric, the future of western civilization depended on reclaiming power from them. But if Republicans proved, again and again, that they were prepared to make enemies, they never quite figured out how they, as a legislature, could master the system.

By cutting down on congressional staff and defunding Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, which they saw as a bastion of lefty thinking, Gingrich and his colleagues got some immediate revenge. Staffers who had lorded over them when they were in the minority were now on the outside looking in. The new majority professed its desire to work similar changes in the executive branch and soon got a promise from President Clinton that he would reduce the size of the federal workforce. (A promise he kept, but with unclear effects on the true size of government.) In the end, however, Republicans never did eliminate any major departments or significantly scale back the American welfare state.

Why not? They staked nearly everything on a direct confrontation with Clinton in the fall and winter of 1995 and early 1996, and they lost. They bet that if they presented him with a spending plan that balanced the budget by cutting entitlement spending, he would have no choice but to take his lumps and sign it. But Clinton proved willing to veto these bills even if it meant shutting the government, counting on the American people’s support if he styled himself the defender of Medicare. “As awful as it is, it would be better to shut the government down for a few days than to shut the country down a few years from now because we took a radical and unwarranted road here that the American people never voted for,” Clinton declared. By April 1996, after two partial government shutdowns that the press (and most Americans) blamed on Gingrich, Republicans took half a loaf in the form of modest reductions in some domestic spending without significantly changing the trajectory of entitlement spending.

To save face, Republicans also passed the aforementioned (small potatoes) Contract With America Advancement Act and a statutory line-item veto for the president. Unsurprisingly, Clinton was an enthusiastic fan of the latter, which promised to fundamentally shift leverage toward the executive branch in negotiating spending deals. The Supreme Court eventually rendered that a nullity. But reflecting on why conservatives thought this process reform was a win illuminates the shortcomings of their overall approach.

In the late 1980s, Republicans had been horrified at the way Democratic appropriators transformed the budget process into a yearly fait accompli. Rather than working through the prescribed series of topical packages in committees and then allowing members to have a say on each part, Democratic majorities increasingly relied on giant omnibus bills that they presented to the president just before funding was set to expire. In this way, conservative critics complained, Democrats had distorted the constitutional system by rendering the president’s veto ineffectual. The president basically had no choice but to go along.

The line-item veto was supposed to redress this development by allowing the president to weigh each individual item on its merits, rejecting those pieces of pork that clearly enriched parochial interests at the expense of the commonwealth. And, of course, the line-item veto would enshrine a certain anti-spending asymmetry into the process: The president could unilaterally strip out wasteful items but wouldn’t be able to unilaterally push up spending on his own pet priorities. The vision implicit in this measure is that Congress should discipline itself and pass only those things clearly in service of the whole people, rather than amalgamating lots of regional interests to generate a broad coalition.

In other words, Congress should act like a good executive planner, concertedly acting in the national interest by channeling its own decisions through a centralized process. This was Gingrich’s vision of Congress. According to Dennis Hastert’s 2004 memoir, when Gingrich ascended to the Speakership, he told his new leadership team, “Well, from now on, the six of us are going to make all the decisions.” Rather than working the traditional committee system that Republicans had yearned for in the minority, he ended up running many leading issues through ad hoc task forces more susceptible to his control than committees.

The ethos of 1994 was “never compromise,” and that left the GOP unable to reap the benefits of broad deliberation. GOP majorities managed to stick together to push through their own budgets, but their failure to work an open process left them unaware of just how unpopular their deep cuts would be with the electorate. They picked the wrong hill to die on—but not simply by chance. Instead, it was their failure to treat the legislature as a genuinely deliberative body that set them up for failure.

Members of the Republican majority did sometimes show a desire for broader institutional reform. For instance, they considered a Congressional Responsibility Act that would have routed administrative decisions through Congress (similar to the REINS proposals of the 2010s). But since that would have required up or down congressional votes within three legislative days of agency action, it would hardly have taken advantage of Congress’ deliberative capacity, either. Passing on that option, Congress instead sought to give the appearance of congressional superintendence of regulation through the Congressional Review Act, whose requirement of joint resolutions (subject to presidential veto) has made it only sporadically useful.

Having lost the battle for public opinion in their budget standoffs with the president, and having lost the 1996 presidential election (which, after their 1994 victories, they thought would be an easy win), Republican congressional majorities did little in Clinton’s second term to revolutionize Washington or tilt the balance of power away from the executive and toward Congress. Instead, they dove into an impeachment process that they hoped would bring them 1974-sized majorities. Here, it was difficult to discern momentous constitutional principles at work; indeed, to many American voters, it appeared that Republicans had put partisanship before high principle or even policy. They subsequently accomplished the rare feat of allowing an incumbent president’s party to pick up seats in a midterm in 1998, after which Gingrich was forced out.

Then came President George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism and Vice President Dick Cheney’s Ford-era vision of a downtrodden presidency whose prerogatives needed to be shielded from out-of-control legislators. The revolutionary moment had passed, having secured almost no structural change. And yet, the counter-revolution within the GOP proved fierce.

Perhaps it would be wise to wait until 2035 or so to attempt a full historical judgment of the Tea Party revolution of 2010 and its legacy—but, in broad strokes, it followed the pattern of the 1994 Revolution in failing to deliver structural change. Tea Partiers responded to executive aggrandizement in the Bush 43 and Obama administrations by, once again, cutting Congress’ own budget (less dramatically than in 1995) and making intransigent opposition their calling card. Like the Class of ’94, the incoming class of 2010 ran hard against the previous Congress’ corruption, in their case emphasizing the unfairness of financial bailouts and “kickbacks” used to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act. And like their predecessors, they found it difficult to shift from denunciation to governing. They felt, with some justification, that what their constituents wanted most was for them to demonstrate their outrage against the incumbent administration and the Washington establishment—perhaps even more than overhauling the system.

In their defense, it would seem Republicans are not the only ones to adopt the never-compromise playbook. Democrats in 2007-2008 and 2019 have, in many ways, done the same. Given this similarity across parties, many political scientists have concluded that our era of partisan parity naturally produces a Congress that defines itself negatively, with the majority party using its agenda control power to frame a stark contrast with the opposition rather than to find common ground. No doubt such pressures are operating and are strong.

But treating them as inevitably controlling is a cop-out. The most important determinant of what sort of institution Congress will be is what its members want. From the Republican Revolution of 1994 onward, would-be reformers have generally pushed a vision of a centralized, top-down institution that can broadcast a unified message, the better to contest increasingly nationalized elections. That strategy has helped cross-pressured party coalitions stick together and has produced some historic wins, such as Senate Republicans’ denial of a third Supreme Court justice for President Obama. But it has done very little to empower broad congressional majorities to grapple with the nation’s leading problems.

Members sense this truth. They know their institution is reviled. What remains is to envision a new revolution that would restructure Congress in ways that force it to fulfill its role as the nation’s leading deliberative body, as the Constitution intends it to be.

This essay was first published on Law & Liberty.

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