Just over 20 years ago, the Gingrich revolution swept through Congress. For the first time in 63 years, Republicans became the majority in the 1994 election.
I was a younger man back then having already spent many years on the Hill. Within the first year of the new leadership I became a chief of staff. Hopes were high for my conservative colleagues. We began organizing congressmen into something called CAT, the “Conservative Action Team,” with the hope that a core of 50 members of the House of Representatives could ensure that promised reforms occurred. That group evolved into what is now the House Freedom Caucus.
We also began to organize high-level conservative staff across the Hill. Like the CAT members, dedicated staff met regularly every week. Our agendas were focused on pushing the Contract with America and many other truly conservative reforms. We learned early on to keep the new Republican leadership out of our meetings – the Gingrich leadership team was not invited to the CAT meetings and their staff was not invited to our meetings.
Even in those early stages of what was called “the Gingrich revolution” we, conservatives, distrusted the majority leadership. Of course, as it turned out, our distrust was well founded. The “revolution” only lasted a few months until Gingrich caved to President Bill Clinton over a big government shutdown.
And here we are, 20 years later, still talking about our distrust of congressional leadership and government shutdowns. We’re still wondering why our side refuses to take command when given the reigns of leadership. The issues that trigger disagreement and intra-party contentions are basically irrelevant – they could be budget items or the debt limit or even the funding of Planned Parenthood. The main point has to do with what happens to leadership when given the reigns of power.
Typically all of the dissension begins when one party controls the White House while the other party controls Congress. That’s the way it was in 1994 and the way it is today. The contention occurs one of two ways, sometimes both – new congressional leadership feels like it has the responsibility to protect its party from overt embarrassment that could lead to a reversal of political fortune in the mid-term elections and/or new congressional leadership, the product of party infighting and compromise, isn’t really representative of the causes championed by voters that got them a new majority.
Then as now, grassroots activists, such as the Tea Party, are responsible for the new majority in Congress. These activists demand action. They demand rigid allegiance to the causes they champion. Sometimes, however, those grassroots causes, while enough to gain a new majority in Congress, are not enough to mandate change from the opposing party in control of the White House. In response, leadership for the new congressional majority often plays cautious. If leadership knows that the White House will stand in defiance to anything the new congressional majority presents, leadership often chooses to not present any bill that is not veto proof.
It’s not about power politics. It’s all about the fear of losing control of power. Again, new congressional leadership prizes the avoidance of embarrassment, especially House leadership. Unlike their Senate counterparts, House members must face reelection every two short years. House members are constantly running for reelection. But the Senate, with its longer terms, is not immune either. In presidential election years, like now, new Senate leadership wants to make sure they get a Republican in the White House so they, too, become very cautious about what they present legislatively to an adversarial White House.
On the one hand, grassroots activists don’t care – they sent to Congress a new majority precisely because they want to see real change, and they don’t care about the political price. On the other hand, new congressional leadership knows that there is no real change unless they’re in office for the long term, and that means they need to be wise as serpents. It’s an old game.
What makes this game nearly impossible to overcome is that government is so big and so intrusive today in the lives of Americans that any threat of a “government shutdown” has real effect on the lives of millions of people. When Newt Gingrich declined to approve a federal budget 20 years ago, President Clinton called the bluff – he simply shut down every government function that touched the lives and pocketbooks of many Americans: He shut down Social Security offices and all of the national monuments for tourists.
Look how conservative Utah reacted just two years ago to a two week shut down. You’d have thought someone died and all that happened was a few tourist attractions closed. The executive branch has the upper hand in these conflicts. Legislators land between a rock and a hard place – they face a defiant White House while grassroots activists threaten them with their political lives.
The worse part is that these conflicts will only get tougher and tougher to resolve as long as the American people put selfish benefit ahead of freedom.