One thing that makes Newt Gingrich an attractive presidential candidate to many conservatives is his term as Speaker of the House and his role as the captain of the Republican Revolution of 1994. But a closer look at the history of the years between 1995 and when he stepped down as speaker in 1998 show that Gingrich was usually at odds with those pushing the Reaganite vision of a truly limited federal government. In fact, when the Republican Revolution succeeded at all it was often in spite of Newt Gingrich, not because of him. Unfortunately, too many conservatives have forgotten this or perhaps may not have known it at all.
Gingrich does indeed come across as an eloquent defender of limited government principles. In 1995, he envisioned the new GOP congressional majority presaging a cultural revolution in Washington, D.C. “The real breaking point is when you find yourself having a whole new debate, with new terms. That’s more important than legislative achievements,” Gingrich told a reporter on the first day of the 104th Congress. “We’ll know in six months whether we have accomplished that.”
The freshman congressmen elected to the 104th Congress can be seen, in an ideological sense, as the Tea Party candidates of their day. As Sam Brownback of Kansas, who was elected to the House in 1994, noted, “A number of us are the political children of Ronald Reagan.”
In the House, Republicans had a majority plus 12 votes if every Republican voted the party line. But not all Republicans would. That’s why the freshmen class mattered. There were 73 brand new members of the House, close to a full third of the entire Republican majority. They held the balance of power. The battles against Big Government were not going to be won simply because there were more Republicans in Congress. The battles would be won because there was more of the sort of Republican committed to making government smaller.
Their first high-profile test was over the federal budget. But once President Clinton refused to sign the budget bills that had passed Congress and that included a number of real spending cuts – including the termination of the Department of Commerce – the battle become one of squabbling politicians during the ensuing government “shutdown” in the winter of 1995. Few people saw the internal squabbles within the Republican caucus in the House over whether the Republicans should stand their ground during the shutdown. Gingrich was actually one of the primary forces aligned against the budget cutters.
The House conservatives knew that refusing to re-open the government was the only way they could get Clinton to move further in their direction. And despite the conventional wisdom at the time, many congressmen noted they were not getting much negative feedback from their constituents. Journalists who followed the events closely admit that Republicans were gaining more of their policy goals the longer the government was shut down. As Elizabeth Drew of the Washington Post wrote in her book about the first year of the 104th Congress, “Clinton had already moved quite a bit [during the shutdown] toward the Republicans, and was prepared to move further.” But Gingrich was eager to end the shutdown. When seventeen House Republicans – twelve of them freshmen – voted against re-opening the government, Gingrich was enraged and cancelled fundraisers in some of their districts. The deal that was eventually struck with Clinton by Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole restored many of the cuts the conservatives had fought hard to pass in the first place.
The GOP did, in one sense, change the terms of the debate as Gingrich claimed they could. One of the biggest beneficial changes to federal entitlement programs ever was the welfare reform of 1996. The groundwork for that reform had been laid in think tanks and public policy circles during the previous twenty years, but it did require the right kind of political climate for passage.
The federal budget was a different matter, however. And after the 1996 elections, Gingrich seemed determined to resuscitate his image with non-conservatives than fighting for spending cuts. And, in many respects, the eventual abandonment of fiscal discipline in the GOP and the embrace of “compassionate conservatism” during the years of the George W. Bush presidency had its beginning in the era of Newt Gingrich.
The opening days of the 105th Congress in January 1997 show how little interest Gingrich had in fighting Big Government. Upon being re-elected as Speaker, Newt Gingrich gave an acceptance speech based on promoting on what he envisioned as the new “great mission” for Republicans: Saving poverty-stricken children from hopelessness, violence, ignorance, racism, and drugs. Gone were the calls for a smaller government. Gone were the acknowledgements that the federal welfare state with its barracks-like public housing projects and top-heavy education bureaucracy was the biggest impediment to economic and social advancement for inner-city youth.
The lack of a conservative agenda led Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal to wonder if the Republican centerpiece for the next two years was a “Contract with Ambivalence.” Joe Scarborough of Florida, then a sophomore congressman, summed up the feelings of the hard-charging freshman class of 1994: “Quite a few members are obviously concerned over the direction that the leadership has taken in these first three months. We have a concern that our leadership remains shell-shocked from the government shutdown a year and a half ago. Most of us are ready for them to start leading again rather than sitting back and reading from Clinton’s song sheet.”
But what afflicted the GOP leadership wasn’t a lack of direction. Gingrich did have a direction in mind. The problem was it led down a path away from smaller government. As prominent neo-conservative William Kristol observed, “He seems to be trying to rehabilitate himself personally instead of leading the conservative movements. He’s not trying to be an ideological leader; he’s trying to be a nice guy.”
The first of many battles between Gingrich and the budget-cutters was over the funding for House committees. A bill the Speaker was pushing would have reversed the hard-won cuts of the previous year. In fact, the legislation would have trashed a key element of the Contract with America: in 1995, when the House cut congressional committee funding by a third, House leaders touted it as one of the first Contract promises kept.
“It should have come as no surprise that some of us were going to say no when they want to hire more Washington bureaucrats,” said budget hawk Mark Neumann of Wisconsin when he declared he would vote against the bill. “When we go out and tell our people we’re going to balance the budget, we can’t start with an increase in our own budget.” With all Democrats opposed to the bill, the swing votes came from eleven GOP budget hawks. It went down to defeat by a narrow margin of three votes.
Gingrich was furious. A few minutes after the vote, he announced an unusual mandatory meeting of all House Republicans in the caucus room right outside the House chamber. The session was going to begin with a roll-call and the Speaker threatened to send the sergeant-at-arms to round up any absent GOP congressman. Once the meeting started, Gingrich fumed. “The eleven geniuses who thought they knew more than the rest of the Congress are going to come up and explain their votes,” he said. It was an unusual step and one that seemed to be motivated mostly by anger. It even surprised the more senior members of Congress, none of whom had ever heard of anyone being asked to explain their vote in this way to the entire caucus. Gingrich’s goal was to humiliate, and he derisively referring to the dissenting members as “you conservatives,” as if they were a distinctly different and unacceptable breed of Republican. He derided them for not being team players and threatened to delay a two-week recess until each of those members explained himself and until the leadership had enough votes to pass the committee bill.
Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, former wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, pushed back. “The Speaker tonight talked about the eleven of us letting the team down. The more significant question and the question that never gets asked in Washington, D.C., is whose teams are we on?”
Many in the room began to nod their heads. The mood had turned against Gingrich. When he was done speaking, Largent received enthusiastic applause from most of the Republicans present. Gingrich never tried a stunt like that again.
Instead, he worked behind the scenes – and not for the last time – to upset the plans of the fiscal conservatives. He struck a deal with the eleven GOP budget-cutters to freeze committee budgets for 30 days so a compromise could eventually be reached. But instead of negotiating in good faith with the conservatives, Gingrich used that delay to cut deals with a handful of Republicans eager to increase spending. In the end, the committee budgets went up by roughly the amount originally proposed.
The next battle was over the federal budget. The 1997 budget deal that Gingrich helped craft was replete with retreats on budget discipline. The spending caps that were in place in the Contract with America budget were abandoned: the 1997 budget ended up hiking overall discretionary spending by 11.5%. The GOP talking points on the budget compromise reminded reporters that the agreement gave Clinton less than he’d asked for. That’s certainly true. But Republicans voluntarily gave up more of their own territory than Clinton did and much of it was encouraged by Gingrich.
Then came the highway bill in 1998. It, too, was a bloated and very expensive venture that highlighted the disconnect between the rhetoric of budget cutting and the reality of what was being pushed. When budget committee chairman John Kasich urged Gingrich to help him persuade members of the Congress to shave off some of the spending, Gingrich shut him down. The bill passed, as these things often do, largely as a result of the hundreds of earmarks stuffed into the bill.
The final straw for many was the 1998 budget. When Kasich presented a budget that harkened back to the Contract with America days and included real budget cuts, Gingrich lambasted the budget-cutters in a closed-door meeting. Gingrich’s pushback against fiscal conservatives was a prelude to Congress, a few weeks before the midterm elections of 1998, passing a budget that hiked non-defense discretionary spending by over 5% that year – twice the 1997 budget deal’s increase – and funded a record amount of pork-barrel projects.
It was in every way a rout of the very ideals that won the GOP a majority in Congress in the first place. When presented with an option by then-Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and a number of other conservatives in the House to offset some of these hikes with spending cuts in other parts of the budget, Gingrich nixed the idea outright.
Today, the nostalgia many seem to have for Gingrich’s days as leader of the House greatly clouds the reality of how conservatives actually felt about him after 1996. As Robert Novak reported at the time, on the first business day after the 1997 budget deal was announced the switchboard of the Republican national headquarters was swamped with calls from rank-and-rile GOP voters protesting the budget “sellout.” The 1998 election was seen then as a referendum on Gingrich’s attack-Clinton-but-spend–like-him strategy. Conservatives were already pondering whether a world without a Republican congressional majority would be all that bad. As George Will speculated in an October 1998 column, “it is unclear that having more Republicans in Congress would be good for either the Constitution or conservatism.” Two weeks before election day 1998, Gingrich grandiosely predicted that his new approach to governing would gain anywhere between 10 and 40 seats. Republicans actually lost three seats, narrowing their majority to five votes in the House. Gingrich stepped down from his Speaker post three days later.
Simply put, anyone who seeks to base Newt Gingrich’s sincerity to the cause of restraining government simply cannot use much of his tenure as Speaker of the House as their basis for that conclusion. A look at the historical record alone should be enough to give pause to anyone who thinks of Gingrich as someone with a long record of leadership in the cause of smaller government. It instead indicates that he was more often part of the problem than the solution.
Stephen Slivinski is senior economist at the Goldwater Institute. Previously he was director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, senior economist at the Tax Foundation, and a senior editor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Mr. Slivinski is the author of the book, Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, published in 2006.