Armey of the Right

Majority Leader Dick Armey may well be the next Speaker of the House. What's his agenda?

Republicans are increasingly pondering the post-Newt age. As one former leadership aide puts it, "Gingrich is dead but he doesn't know it yet." Indeed, disgust with the speaker is so deep among House Republicans that many have nicknamed him "Toast." As the GOP starts looking around for Gingrich's successor, all eyes are falling on House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Irving, Texas.

As second-in-command, Armey has assumed far more power than past majority leaders, making critical decisions about which bills come up and when. First elected to the House in 1984, Armey has carved out a legislative reputation for himself as an outspoken advocate of limited government, lower taxes, and free enterprise.

"I'm acutely aware of who I am," announces Armey in an interview in his Capitol office. "I'm a free-market economist. That is my self-definition. Freedom is my highest value, in life as in politics. I let my economics define my politics, and I'm discouraged by the number of people who I think get it the other way around."

As the current speaker's fortunes wane, Armey's are likely to wax. "He's spent the last six years really building a base of support by doing a lot of fundraising and a lot of campaigning for Republicans who are now in the House," says Stephen Moore, director of fiscal studies at the Cato Institute, who worked with Armey as a staff member of the Joint Economic Committee. "To put it very bluntly, a lot of these guys owe Armey." Indeed, according to The Hill newspaper, Armey's political action committee has raised more than $1.6 million, of which $733,000 was given to 150 House candidates during the 1996 election cycle. He donated another $500,000 of his own campaign money to the Republican National Committee. Although Armey denies interest in the speakership, one loyalist says, "He's just killing time until he can really lead."

As improbable as it seems, the country is close to having a speaker of the House who publicly claims freedom as his highest value, has worked with some success to shrink government, and considers Ludwig von Mises's Human Action and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom important books. How all that would affect an Armey-led House is not immediately clear: The Republicans hold slim majorities in both houses of Congress and can expect little support from a Democratic White House; certainly, any dreams of "revolution" have been banished by political reality. Perhaps more interestingly, there have been some grumblings among conservative Republicans that Armey has "grown in office," that he is beginning to accommodate Washington's reigning left-liberal orthodoxy.

Whatever questions may exist about Armey's dedication to principles, his support among Republicans remains strong and wide--and runs far deeper than his pockets. Since coming to Washington, he has been a consistent spokesman for minimal government, castigating Medicare as a program he would have "no part of in a free world," denouncing corporate and social welfare alike, and relentlessly stumping for a 17 percent flat tax. When the Clinton health plan was unveiled, it was Armey who drew the devastatingly Byzantine chart full of arrows and boxes to illustrate so vividly its bureaucratic morass.

The former economics professor has backed up such fiery rhetoric with legislative substance. Last year, for instance, he played a key role in passing the Freedom to Farm Act, which began phasing out the nation's 60-year-old system of agricultural price supports. Two years ago, Armey led the quick-step march through the Contract with America. A decade ago, he masterminded legislation that resulted in the country's largest reduction of military bases.

Armey's appeal reaches beyond fiscal conservatives, too. His vociferous opposition to abortion has long commended him to social conservatives (even as it distances him from most libertarian conservatives), and his recent conversion to born-again Christianity only strengthens the tie. About a year and a half ago, "I finally got over being stubborn and prideful and accepted Christ as my savior," says Armey, who adds, "Yeah, it's been a remarkable change in my life." "There's nobody else in the leadership who is going to be able to draw the support that Armey does from conservatives," says Dave Mason, congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

To a significant degree, then, Armey unites fiscally and socially conservative Republicans. He insists that what a spokesperson calls his "renewed" religious commitment doesn't signal a tectonic change in his political philosophy. That is true enough: He has long lent support to social-conservative causes (for instance, he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and supports the drug war), but his primary legislative focus has always been reducing taxes, spending, and regulations. Too readily perhaps, Armey brushes aside the differences between the Christian and libertarian flanks of the GOP, calling the sides "freedom's choir" because both, he says, share a deep interest in limited government and individual liberty.

To his credit, Armey's current leadership role--much less the possibility of a Speaker Armey--discomfits much of the Washington establishment, even some Republicans. In a recent piece, for instance, The New Republic called Armey a "two-note bore." The magazine quoted an unnamed "senior conservative staffer": "Less government, lower taxes, that's about all you ever hear from him....His notion of coming up with a new idea is 'Call Milton Friedman.'" An anonymous moderate House Republican bemoaned Armey, along with fellow Reps. Tom DeLay and John Boehner, as "real reptile conservatives."

Armey has long garnered such glib dismissals--The Almanac of American Politics wrote him off (soon after he arrived in Washington) as "hardly likely to be a power in the House." (It has since changed its opinion.) But his 10-year ascent from nowheresville novice to House majority leader reveals a savvy politician and tactician whom people have repeatedly underestimated.

Born in 1940 to an independent grain dealer in North Dakota, the fifth of eight children, Armey was the first in his family to go to college. He began his career as a lineman for a utility company and went on to become chairman of the economics department at the University of North Texas. He ran for Congress in 1984, beating a one-term Democrat by a 1 percent margin. (He has been re-elected ever since by majorities sometimes topping 75 percent.)

In his second term, Armey pulled off a stunning legislative victory with passage of military-base-closing legislation. Base-closing bills had languished for years. But applying public choice theory, he constructed a unique mechanism to overcome parochial log rolling--a base-closing commission whose decisions had to be accepted or rejected by Congress and the president without amendment. He pursued the bill relentlessly with colleagues from both parties, and it became one of the great political successes of modern government, closing over 100 bases around the country.

"It didn't look like it was going anywhere, but once he put it in place, I mean, all of a sudden you have a huge number of bases closed," recalls Rep. Bob Matsui, a California Democrat who fought to preserve an Air Force facility in Sacramento.

When Armey first came to Washington, "He had a strong personal philosophy but he had a lot of trouble getting things done," recalls Bill Frenzel, a former GOP congressman of 20 years. "He sat down to figure out why he had not been successful and really thought it through himself without a lot of help. He decided he had to figure out how to make majorities. In passing the base-closing bill," Frenzel says, Armey "became in the space of less than two years one of the premier legislators in the House."

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