For Republicans, a Maturing Revolution

Posted June 13, 2003 at 6:38pm

In the summer of 1993, then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), an affable moderate, complained to his hometown paper that the Republican Conference at the time was “the most conservative and antagonistic to the other side” that he had seen in his career. The majority of recently elected GOP lawmakers, he said, were “pretty darn hard-liners, some of them real hard-line.”

Ten years later, those “hard-liners” are firmly in charge of Washington. Conservatives occupy every leadership post in the House.

And as House Republicans grow more comfortable in the majority, the revolution fades further into memory. Former GOP leaders like Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Dick Armey (Texas), Bill Paxon (N.Y.) and J.C. Watts (Okla.) have left Congress, while other key revolutionary figures have abandoned their roles as Young Turks to assume chairmanships and other positions of responsibility.

The top two House Republicans, Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), spent years laboring in the minority, but a new generation of lawmakers — including Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) — moved into leadership positions without ever spending a day outside the majority. More than half of all current GOP Members, in fact, have never served in the House minority.

As the faces of the Republican Conference have changed, so too has the focus. GOP Members and aides say their agenda has become narrower and more incrementalist while their message has been softened and tailored for appeal to a broader audience.

Revolutions are usually considered to be over when the revolutionaries come to power. The challenge facing House Republicans as they near their 10th year in the majority is to avoid getting too comfortable.

“We have matured as a majority considerably,” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “We’re tempted by the trappings of power like anyone would be, but we’re being careful not to get wrapped up in power for power’s sake. The irony is that if we’re just here to maintain our position and our power, then we’ll lose the majority.”

A Tight Majority

As House Republicans see it, changing from wild-eyed revolutionaries to responsible leaders has been a process of trial and error.

“There is a tremendous learning curve requirement to figuring out what governing is all about,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), a fixture in the House since 1979. “Once we got [the majority], bomb-throwers had to become legislators.”

The path has unquestionably been a bumpy one. After their stunning victory in 1994, House Republicans lost three seats in 1996, four seats in 1998 and two in 2000 before rebounding in 2002 to pick up six seats.

Republicans’ current 12-seat majority is their largest since 1996 but still relatively modest by historical standards. In the last 30 years of Democratic reign, their average majority was roughly 45 seats.

Those Republicans who remember the minority feel that they have a responsibility to remind their newer colleagues that their power could easily disappear with the next Election Day.

“What we learned in the minority is that being opposed to everything is not enough,” said Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who was one of the revolutionary Gang of Seven. “You have to put forth an agenda.”

Even those Members who have served only in the House majority said they understood how easily power can slip away.

“I served in the state Legislature for seven out of my nine years in the minority,” said Cantor, who is in just his second term in the House. “Being here and being in the majority, I guess you could say it makes me that much more determined.”

Reynolds had a similar experience before his election to the House in 1998.

“One of the reasons I ran for Congress was to be in the majority party,” said the New Yorker.

Aside from the obvious advantages of power, House Republicans believe that actually being in the majority serves as a strong recruiting incentive. One Republican leadership aide argued that the quality of candidates the party was enticing into House races, a group that includes numerous statewide elected officials, was much higher than it used to be when the party was in the minority.

A Softer Message

Beyond attracting better candidates, House Republicans have also focused on different candidate profiles. The luxury of holding power for several election cycles means that the party has been able to think about ways to move beyond their traditional base and play to a broader audience.

“First we tried to take over the majority,” said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. “Then there was a period we were trying to consolidate the majority. Now we’re trying to expand the majority.”

Mirroring the the national party, House Republicans have stepped up their efforts in recent years to attract more women, blacks, Hispanics and Jews. Those efforts have required a change in message and a softening of rhetoric.

“We can’t just be about the angry white guy anymore,” said a House Republican leadership aide.

Yet despite the party’s much-publicized efforts to attract minority groups into the fold, the stated goals are modest. Few Republicans are willing to predict that the GOP will attract a majority of the black, Hispanic or Jewish vote any time in the near future.

Instead, Republicans in the House and elsewhere on the national level have tended to set more attainable benchmarks, like recruiting a larger pool of minority candidates and increasing the party’s support by a few percentage points per cycle. This caution stems both from realism and from a desire not to risk diluting the party’s essentially conservative identity by pandering.

“If you’re too big a tent you become the Democratic Party,” said a senior House Republican leadership aide.

When they took over the House in 1995, Republicans used broad, sweeping language to describe their plans. Gingrich was particularly fond of military jargon (he called the 1994 takeover a “theater-level campaign plan” and the “Contract with America” a “training implementation document”).

Now, the party talks less about revolutionizing American society and more about how their agenda would specifically help single mothers, rank-and-file union members and retired veterans.

“We’ve sanded the edges,” Portman said.

Republican lawmakers admitted that they lost many of the message wars of the 1990s, and that they have adapted as a result.

“I think it was difficult for us to communicate in those days against the megaphone of Bill Clinton,” Nussle said.

Obviously, having a GOP administration has helped House Republicans get their message out. But again, control of the White House and the Senate means that the party has a responsibility to govern rather than assign blame.

As one House Republican strategist put it, they can’t just point to a list of 50 completed bills and blame the Senate for not moving them anymore.

A Narrower Agenda

As House Republicans’ message has gotten softer and more sophisticated, their agenda has become more incremental.

Just as their rhetoric was broad, the GOP revolutionaries came to power with a large-scale plan to change the government. Among other goals, they were going to abolish the Education Department, sell off federal buildings and pass a balanced budget amendment.

“We passed in the House [many] of those commitments but very few were enacted into law,” said Portman. “The approach we’re taking now is more practical, keeping in mind the realities of the Senate.”

Some Republicans acknowledged that many of their initial proposals smacked of arrogance, as they interpreted their enormous victory in 1994 as a larger mandate than it turned out to be.

“The danger is that you get so bold you think you can do anything,” said a Republican leadership aide.

Now, instead of abolishing the Education Department, Republicans talk about vouchers and improving test scores. Rather than scrapping the tax code altogether, they tinker with it, adjusting it a bit each year.

At the same time, House Republicans argue that they have helped to change the terms of the debate, as some ideas that were once branded as the sole province of the right are now viewed as mainstream.

“The first piece of discussion is always, ‘How can we lower the tax burden on people?’” said Hastert spokesman Feehery. “Tax increases are completely off the table, and I think that’s a huge change.”

Internal Reform

With all of the focus on tax cuts and other elements of national domestic policy, it is easy to forget how much of the Republican revolution was focused on reforming the House itself. The Contract with America pledged “to restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace.”

Cleaning up the House’s internal operations was a key component of the GOP message, and the chamber’s Republicans believe they have accomplished much of what they set out to do on that front.

The House Bank has been disbanded, and the Congressional Accountability Act was passed, subjecting Congress to the same health and safety rules as other parts of the federal government. The chamber has also received several consecutive clean audits.

At the same time, Republicans have reformed the way their own Conference operates, with the most significant change being the creation of six-year term limits for committee chairmen.

Though that particular reform was not unanimously supported by the GOP Conference, many Republicans believe it has helped to keep their ideas fresh and their Members energetic.

They argue that the new system gives more junior lawmakers motivation to be active committee members and to offer new policy ideas, knowing that they might have a chance to claim gavels in the not-too-distant future.

Under the old system, chairmen set the agenda, and “if you had a different idea, well, that’s too bad,” said a House Republican aide.

Further, removing seniority as the sole determining factor for gavel succession has sparked numerous competitive chairmanship races, making even the most senior lawmakers rev up their fundraising efforts and reiterate their commitment to the party line.

When Republicans were in the minority, they often had little recourse other than to kick up dust on their committees and make trouble for Democratic chairmen and GOP ranking members.

Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio), a former member of the Gang of Seven, laughed as he recalled a recent incident where a freshman member of the Education panel apologized for causing him “problems.”

“You don’t even know,” Boehner told the freshman. “I can show you how to cause problems.”