Congress's Conservative Young Turks

A group of brash young representatives calls itself the "Conservative Opportunity Society" and speaks glowingly of free enterprise. Is it genuine, or another case of political opportunism?


In the spring of last year, Congressman Newt Gingrich made news twice. Considering his position in the world—an obscure Republican representative from Georgia with little seniority and less influence—that's remarkable.

The first time came last April after 10 senior House Democrats (including Majority Leader Jim Wright) wrote a letter to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega "in a spirit of hopefulness and good will," urging him to hold genuine elections in his country. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D–N.Y.), who helped draft the letter, told the New York Times that it had been written to Ortega at the request of Alfonso Robelo, one of the leaders of rebel forces in Nicaragua.

But Newt Gingrich was not mollified. He in turn wrote a letter to his colleagues charging that the Democrats' initiative "clearly violates the constitutional separation of powers. It's at best unwise, and at worst illegal." It is hardly an everyday occurrence for a House member to suggest that other House members may have committed illegal acts, so Gingrich's charges were duly reported in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Gingrich made news again a month later on the House floor when he delivered a diatribe against liberal Democrats in Congress. He concluded with the claim that his targets' foreign-policy views were: "Give the benefit of every doubt to the Communists and doubt every benefit of your own nation." As he well knew, his, audience numbered far more than the handful of his fellow representatives and the visitors present in the House chambers. The speech was broadcast nationwide over C-SPAN television to as many as a million viewers.

One viewer who was physically present during Gingrich's speech was House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Infuriated, he descended from the speaker's podium to the members' rostrum to respond. "My personal opinion," he thundered, "is that you deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism, and it is the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in the House." O'Neill was then ruled out of order by the presiding officer, the first time that has happened to a speaker in this century.

The national media's collective nose twitched at the scent of blood. Gingrich reaped the reward—a national audience, 30 seconds' of network news time, and the beginning of political celebrity.

In fact, this was not an isolated occurrence. It was only the most dramatic in a series of shows staged and produced by a well-organized group of "young Turk" Republicans in the House called the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS). Gingrich and his COS colleague Bob Walker (R–Penn.) have spent hours before C-SPAN cameras harassing the Democratic leadership, often when the House chambers are virtually empty and even their targets are not present. COS members have objected to routine requests to bypass House calendar procedures, in order to publicize their insistence that conservative legislation be scheduled for action. They staged a Capitol Hill prayer vigil while the House debated their "school prayer offensive." They organized "Grenada Day," a nationwide teach-in on college campuses to celebrate the first anniversary of the United States invasion of the Caribbean nation. All in all, it's a well-planned New Right version of consciousness raising and confrontation with the political establishment.

The seed of the COS was planted in 1978, when Newt Gingrich was first elected to the House from a district made up mainly of Atlanta's less-affluent suburbs. The Almanac of American Politics describes them as "uncomfortable middle class: people not quite secure in their pleasant status and fearful of the blacks and poor they left behind in Atlanta." Gingrich's politics are tailored not to displease his middle-class constituency. He himself says, "I'm not purely an ideological leader. I am a representative of Georgia's sixth district and I am a politician."

A 41-year-old former history professor, he has the driving ambition of someone determined, in his own words, to "build a long-term mass movement" and "save the West." But junior members of Congress on the minority side of the aisle traditionally have little opportunity to do either. Years ago, the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn regularly advised freshman representatives, "To get along, go along." Most newcomers to the House then and now have resigned themselves to following that advice. Gingrich, however, chose a different strategy.

He set out to shape a slick-sounding futuristic agenda that would attract Republican colleagues tired of playing a "silent minority" role. By early 1983, he had coined the term "Conservative Opportunity Society" and forged an alliance with a handful of other impatient young representatives including Vin Weber of Minnesota, Connie Mack of Florida, Dan Lungren of California, and Dan Coats of Indiana. They met weekly to hammer out long-term strategy and to share a common philosophy. As of January, there were 15 representatives in their ranks.

COS members occasionally protest that the organization is far more than the Georgia congressman, and they're right. For instance, Vin Weber, a 32-year-old representative from Minnesota and former newspaper publisher, is in some ways as important to the group as Gingrich. Currently the informal chair of the COS, Weber is the glue holding the collection of assertive personalities together, and he hosts their weekly strategy sessions in his office. Nevertheless, Gingrich is still the most prominent member of the COS, and it is he who has written the group's manifesto, a tract called Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future.

More important than the relative influence of the COS's individual members is their political vision. They insist that they have an innovative policy agenda for 1985 and beyond. Is it new-ideas beef or recycled Republican hash? How does it comport with values such as entrepreneurship, free enterprise, and individual freedom that they claim as their own? The influential New Right strategist Terry Dolan asserts that the COS crowd is "more libertarian than they have the nerve to admit." Is he correct?

A good starting point for finding out is Window of Opportunity. In it, Gingrich attacks what he and other conservatives consider the jugular of welfare-state liberalism—a zero-sum redistributionist perspective, resistance to change, cultural relativism, high taxation, overregulation. In a nation that gave a landslide to Ronald Reagan last year, those are inviting targets. But does Gingrich advocate remedies that would reduce the size or scope of government? Not when it comes to most economic issues. On the contrary, he welcomes forceful government intervention to structure the market with incentives for growth and technological development. For him, the array of incentives that an unimpeded market will provide on its own isn't sufficient.

"The opportunity society calls not for a laissez-faire society in which the economic world is a neutral jungle of purely random individual behavior, but for forceful government intervention on behalf of growth and opportunity," Gingrich declares in his book. "We must encourage the production of new wealth, new ideas, and new inventions."

One of Gingrich's passions is establishing government as a key player in promoting high-tech winners. "We need dozens of government-encouraged and subsidized efforts to build the information systems of the future," he writes. At the same time, he has no interest in government resuscitation of "rust belt" losers (of which there are few in Georgia's sixth congressional district).

Conservative Republicans ordinarily pay lip service, at least, to laissez-faire economics. Gingrich does not. "There has never been to the best of my knowledge in the United States any laissez-faire policy," Gingrich declared recently in an interview, as he tossed out allusions to the Homestead Act and the Transcontinental Railroad. "I think [the government] building a manned space station is a clear definition of the future and where we want to go. And I think that a healthy intelligent society doesn't just keep Panama Canals—it builds them."

Gingrich's sweet tooth is for space development. A cofounder of the House Space Caucus who has the Atlanta Airport (the world's second-largest commercial airport) in his district, Gingrich urges government funding for space analagous to government aid to civil aviation in the past. "Because American politicians had the vision in the 1920s and 1930s to subsidize and nurture an infant industry," he says, "we came to lead the world in aviation."

Is there anything that would keep Gingrich's grand vision from becoming a right-wing version of the familiar industrial policy of liberals? Sure—"restricting government to setting up very large systems," he replies unconvincingly, as he dances off to the antibureaucracy tunes of decentralized initiatives and the marketplace.

Gingrich's generosity with other people's pocketbooks would extend to some among the earthbound, and it would not be limited to his stylized industrial policy. Big auto companies are evidently among Gingrich's elect. He abandoned free trade in 1982 to vote for domestic-content legislation requiring US-made parts in auto manufacturing (he explains his shift from earlier political principles by pointing to a pair of auto factories in his district). Last year, he voted for federal subsidies for the Rural Electrification Administration, a huge boondoggle for scores of politically powerful utility cooperatives, higher funding for the Superfund program, which is charged with cleaning up toxic wastes but has so far done virtually nothing, and higher funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an elegant pork barrel providing entertainment for the middle and upper classes. For all this, however, it is subsidies for high-tech industries and space development that really seem to capture the Georgia congressman's imagination.

Not all of Gingrich's colleagues in the COS share his enthusiasm in full measure. For example, Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, a House Science and Technology Committee member, supports privatization of the space-shuttle system, which he fears could otherwise become "the high-tech equivalent of a space Amtrak." He observes, "I had to educate Newt not to endorse everything NASA wants. What government ought to do is provide the climate in which investment can take place in space, but basically not try to be the generator of space commercial activity." He continues, "The main pitfall would be if we went toward some kind of a quasi-space industrial policy."

And Dan Lungren of California, a COS member on the Joint Economic Committee, has in mind subsidies to business that are considerably more modest than Gingrich's. Specifically, Lungren seems a bit concerned that the government dole would create a permanent welfare class among American industries, while he would prefer that subsidies to business be only temporary. "Maybe I look at it a little differently than Newt does," he says. "Government sure has to take the first step. And in some ways it may provide a subsidy to a particular industry or business, but the intent is to get it moving off the government plate and get it over there on the commercial plate as soon as possible, so more and more commercial actors can get involved."

Gingrich does not hesitate to push subsidy programs for his favorite industries, but he has spent much of his political career lambasting the more traditional welfare state. Even that lambasting, however, seems to be more bark than bite. Gingrich is clearly loathe to offend anyone by advocating specific reductions in welfare programs, especially in perks for the middle class. "Conservative administrations have consistently focused on undoing liberal mistakes rather than on creating conservative solutions," he said in Window of Opportunity. "Running a cheap welfare state cannot be our goal."

While other reformers—both liberal and conservative—are exploring changes such as means tests (that is, limiting benefits to those who are in greatest need) that would reduce the cost of social spending, Gingrich is content to sketch a vision of more-efficient delivery systems 'for government-funded services. By invoking the benefits of decentralization without filling in the politically tough details, he promises in effect to "get it for you wholesale." Along the way, he would toss ample federal funding bouquets—a $500 annual bonus to people who don't utilize Medicare during a given year, tax credits for family-provided home health care, and a $100-million reward to inventors of self-operated kidney-dialysis systems. In fact, many of Gingrich's domestic-policy initiatives come down to handing out money for desirable patterns of behavior. "Whenever possible, we should reward people for making changes in their lives that will speed up the transformation to a new era," he wrote. It's a vision of the polity as Skinner box.

What of substance, then, underlies Gingrich's stirring economic rhetoric? Chiefly, lavish new bundles of subsidies and other government goodies for high-tech industries, most of which are already quite capable of prospering on their own, plus desultory tinkering with the welfare state. After all, "you can trim some programs and you can kill some programs, but the first duty of a political coalition is to sustain its majority," the revolutionary Gingrich has candidly admitted.

It comes as some relief that cos members seem unwilling to finance the grand designs of Representative Gingrich or anyone else by raising taxes. In fact, Mark Siljander of Michigan has, to his credit, staked out ground of his own on the tax-simplification issue with the support of his colleagues in the COS. Last year, he introduced a bill that "out-Kemps" the Kemp-Kasten FAST tax proposal with its 25 percent flat rate. Siljander proposed a 10 percent flat tax, a doubling of the current personal exemption, and retention of deductions for charity, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), interest, and local taxes.

There are other constructive ideas emanating from the COS. For example, the group's chair, Vin Weber, is quite sympathetic to IRAs. "We ought to expand dramatically the concept of IRAs," he argues. "More money ought to be put into them and [we should] allow them to be used for purposes like education, health, and home ownership. And change the name to Individual Responsibility Accounts, because that's what they're trying to teach people."

The COS favors a temporary freeze on discretionary nondefense spending, but at least one member—Connie Mack—seems to want more fundamental change than that. "I would look at the six subsidy sisters—big business, small business, agriculture, transportation, credit programs, and local community grants," he says. (At the same time, he concedes that the COS has yet to formulate plans for cutting federal spending on a programmatic basis. "Newt was a little bit concerned that the administration's 'pain and abuse' budget would alienate every interest group in the country, and create real havoc for the basic Republican position in 1986," he explained.)

The COS's positions on foreign and defense policy are, for the most part, the conventional views of conservative Republicans. "We must establish the Republican Party as America's new internationalist party," Weber says. "We have to plant democratic capitalism in the Third World." To do that, the COS thinks that conservatives should abandon any lingering skittishness about foreign aid and support a restructuring of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Such a foreign policy can lead to US involvement overseas, but the COS does not flinch. The last Congress voted on an amendment to prohibit the spending of taxpayers' money on CIA covert military operations in Nicaragua. The ban passed the House—but every one of the COS members voted against it.

COS members have irked their elders in the Republican leadership with one interesting deviation from the Reagan administration's foreign policy. Last December, Vin Weber and Bob Walker drafted a letter to the South African ambassador in Washington blasting his nation's apartheid policy. Eventually, 35 Republican representatives (including most COS members) signed the letter, which warned of international sanctions and curtailed American investment in South Africa unless there is "an immediate end to the violence in South Africa accompanied by a demonstrated sense of urging about ending apartheid."

The letter was, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "a sharp departure from Republican orthodoxy." So it's little wonder that the response of orthodox Republicans was not delight. Rep. Gerald Solomon (R–N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the House African Affairs Subcommittee and the administration's point man in the House on African policy, fumed to the Journal, "It was completely half-baked—counterproductive to what the administration is trying to accomplish." But Weber argues that taking a consistent position for political and economic freedom, wherever it is threatened, will enhance the credibility of conservatives when they criticize Marxist dictatorships.

On military policy, most COS members like to think of themselves as "cheap hawks" who are tougher on the Pentagon than traditional conservatives. "Our people, almost to a man, are critical of cost overruns, bureaucracy, inefficiency, and the unwillingness of the Pentagon to reform," Weber boasts.

Gingrich has contended that security problems stem from a lack of strategy, not dollars. "You could certainly get more defense for less money if you reformed the Pentagon," he says. But like some other members of the House Military Reform Caucus, his proposals focus far less on specific budget reductions than on management reforms. He trumpets the virtues of expanded reliance on the National Guard, more multiyear procurement, and greater purchasing of off-the-shelf hardware. At the same time, his Window of Opportunity and public statements carefully avoid more-controversial positions such as canceling useless weapon systems (his press secretary could not name a single weapon or weapon system that Gingrich would like to scrap), scaling back lavish military pensions, and ending America's military umbrella over the NATO nations and Japan, all of which can and could be financing their own defense.

Among Gingrich and his COS colleagues, there are precious few signs of commitment to civil liberties of any kind. In fact, COS members have worked assiduously, often in alliance with the Moral Majority and other New Right groups, to erode individual freedom in several areas. Last year, for example, COS member Dan Lungren sponsored a motion that paved the way for the administration's "comprehensive crime control" package. It subsequently passed. Among other things, it provides for preventive detention in federal cases (in other words, locking up a person who hasn't been convicted of any crime, for as long as 10 days) if a judge happens to consider the person to be a "danger to the community." The judge isn't required to set bail for a defendant, even if the defendant is expected to show up at the trial.

The crime control package also substantially raises the penalties for people who are caught growing or selling marijuana. Someone who raises or sells less than 50 kilograms (about 100 pounds) of marijuana is now liable for a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $50,000 fine. For over 50 kilograms, the penalty is up to 15 years in jail and $125,000 fine—the heaviest penalty in federal drug law. And, of course, a person raising marijuana can now be incarcerated even before he's convicted if the judge thinks he's a "danger to the community."

There were 14 members of the COS who voted on Lungren's motion when it came to a floor vote. Every one of those votes was in favor of the measure.

With the notable exception of Bobbi Fiedler of California, COS members have generally been hostile to government permitting abortion under any circumstances. Last year, COS member Siljander devised a new anti-choice strategy—an amendment expanding the definition of "person" under the Age Discrimination Act to include "unborn children from the moment of conception." Again, 14 of the 15 COS members cast a vote on the House floor. All except Fiedler supported Siljander's amendment.

The Conservative Opportunity Society sees itself as a coalition-builder, and the grand coalition it has in mind is of right wing populists, traditional conservatives, and libertarians. But does such a coalition make ideological sense? Eddie Mahe, the COS's top political strategist, suggests that such a question is beside the point. A wily veteran of a score of political battles and the manager of John Connally's abortive presidential campaign in 1980, he has been a close adviser to Gingrich for over a decade. He puts his money on a large role for the COS within the Republican Party and says, "A reasonably astute Republican Party can create an umbrella of rhetoric which provides a party that everybody then can identify with. Most voters don't get to the substantive level."

Perhaps Mahe is correct. It may well be that the COS's flashy guerrilla raids against the congressional establishment, their imaginative use of the mass media, and their rhetoric of opportunity and a high-tech society will spawn the coalition that Mahe envisions. If so, it will be because the COS has successfully masqueraded its orthodox views on a number of issues.

Tom Miller is a Washington-based free-lance writer whose articles have been published in Reader's Digest, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications.