Why did the Democrats lose the House in 1994 after 40 years of rule?
One can make a case that the early stumbles of the Clinton White House, including the excruciating delay in enacting an economic plan along with the failure to get health care through, created a backlash against ineffective one-party government. One can make a case that former Speaker Newt Gingrichs (R-Ga.) long-term plan to nationalize the Congressional elections, culminating in the Contract with America, finally provided a coherent and attractive alternative. But a critical element in the public backlash against the status quo in Congress was the populist anger at the elitism and corruption that the public saw engulfing Washington, D.C.
The first eruption of that populist anger came in 1989, with a pay raise for federal officials that had been endorsed by outgoing President Ronald Reagan, incoming President George H. W. Bush and all Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders from Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) to the aforementioned Gingrich. But that broad bipartisan support meant nothing to average voters struggling with a sluggish economy and stagnant wages.
I remember vividly going to board the train at Union Station to attend the House Democrats retreat at the Greenbrier resort the location itself was a public relations nightmare akin to auto executives flying private jets to D.C. to beg for public money. We had to run a gauntlet of angry protesters holding signs and hurling epithets.
That was followed in 1992 by the House Bank brouhaha, revealed by Roll Call, which showed that a slew of House Members had overdrawn their accounts at the House Bank. It did not matter that the bank was not a bank in the traditional sense, but a repository for Members paychecks until they could be deposited in other accounts, and that the only money in the bank was from the lawmakers themselves; the story created a firestorm emphasizing that Members of Congress played by a different set of rules than the rest of us, exempt from the constraints or fines that we face. Many superb lawmakers lost their next elections (or retired prematurely) as a direct consequence.
The next train wreck was predictable. For some good reasons related to separation of powers issues, Congress exempted itself from regulation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other executive agencies. But to the public (and to the minority party), this was another clear case of an imperial, insulated, pampered and arrogant Congress applying onerous laws to others while exempting itself.