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When newly elected lawmakers first head for Washington, D.C., they’re ready to take Congress by storm. But reality quickly settles in; after all, who is less powerful than a freshman? But for the Democratic freshmen of the 110th Congress, their large voting bloc and reform agenda has put them in positions of unusual visibility and power, emboldening them to break with leadership on key votes and at times try to muscle Congress to bend to their will.
“Obviously they were elected as agents of change,” said Linda Killian, director of Boston University’s Washington Journalism Center and author of “The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution?” “It’s the same as ’94. They were elected because people said, ‘We’re fed up with the Bush administration, the Iraq War, and we want you to do something about it.’”
Nowhere is the precedent for the power bid by this year’s freshmen more apparent than in their counterparts from 1994. After helping take the House for the first time in 40 years, GOP freshmen took to heart their mission as the conservative conscience of the Republican revolution, pushing for a balanced budget, refusing to compromise with more moderate Senate Republicans and fighting with the White House, eventually forcing a government shutdown.
“There was quite a bit of euphoria,” Raymond Smock, former House historian and now-director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, said of the Republican takeover that brought 73 House and 11 Senate Republicans to Congress.
The electoral victors from the 1994 campaign included former Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who all rose to leadership positions. In the House, the lawmakers included a variety of high-profile recruits such as singer Sonny Bono (Calif.) and pro football superstar Steve Largent (Okla.).
At the time, the power of the incoming freshmen was especially apparent in the House. “[Then-Speaker] Newt [Gingrich (R-Ga.)] ran fast and loose with the seniority system, passing over longtime senior Representatives in favor of new firebrands that he wanted on his team,” Smock said. But that also was true in the tradition-bound Senate, where freshman Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) was given the chairmanship of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
“They felt they had been brought there largely because of the momentum the Gingrich wing of the Conference had generated,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), now a lobbyist at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. But unlike then-Speaker Gingrich, who at times tried to massage House bills to make them more palatable for the Senate, the freshman lawmakers refused to compromise on issues of less government, pushing for the dissolution of the Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development departments.
That historic class continues to have a presence in Congress with many of the House Republicans moving over to the Senate, including now-Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), John Ensign (Nev.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.). Others left Congress, such as former Rep. Bob Ehrlich, who became governor of Maryland before being defeated in 2006, and former Rep. Mark Sanford, who became governor of South Carolina. Still other former lawmakers such as Reps. Bob Barr (Ga.) — who gained fame for his lead role in the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton — moved on to become a commentator and surprise ally of the American Civil Liberties Union, while Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough became the host of “Scarborough Country” on MSNBC.
But some of the Members pegged for big things ultimately contributed to the decline and fall of the Republican majority, including former Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio), who is now in prison following his entanglement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Former Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.), whose sex scandal helped propel Democrats in the weeks before the 2006 midterm elections, also was elected in 1994. And yet other Republican “revolutionaries” such as Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota and Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona found themselves defeated in the 2006 midterm elections.
Whether the 110th Congress’ freshman class will prove itself to be as historically notable for pushing its own agenda remains uncertain. Unlike the 1994 class, the current class of Democrats includes a more diverse universe of political viewpoints ranging from fairly conservative to liberal, Killian said.
“The things that got this new class elected were issues that are mostly conservative and are not really supported by their leadership,” said Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), who served as Republican class president in 1994. “We had the support of our leadership for the objectives we were elected for. It’s going to be a real challenge for them to fulfill their commitments.”
Divisions have appeared within the class over the Iraq War, while some of the frosh have pushed for a more aggressive approach to issues such as ethics. In May, Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) spearheaded 20 fellow freshmen to take on the House Democratic leadership’s plan for ethic reform.
“People are tired of the scandalous headlines coming out of Washington, and Congress should move forward soon to clean up its act. Too often the ethics process has been used by Congress to protect its own. It’s time for a strong, independent watchdog,” Murphy said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.
Thirteen freshmen also joined the moderate- to-conservative Blue Dog Coalition this year, increasing their overall membership to 47, according to Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.).
“The new Members have stepped up to the plate and have become leaders,“ Ross said. Freshmen have played a leading role on three of the Blue Dog’s priority bills this Congress, including Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) pushing for reinstituting budgetary “pay-as-you-go” rules, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) leading the efforts on the balanced budget amendment, and Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) sponsoring the bill for more open and honest government.
“This group is reformist and at the same time quite pragmatic, they don’t all share a similar ideology, they realize the opposition of the war is a great catalyst for their opposition, and they understand the importance of resolving that conflict and moving on and defeating terrorism in other fundamental ways,” Fazio said. “They don’t come with the kind of pure and — in the case of the 1994 class — ultra-conservative ideology.”
Looking back, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who was a freshman in 1994 and is retiring at the end of this Congress, says he has two pieces of advice for the current freshmen: “Don’t forget who brought you to the dance and where you come from.”