For the first time since Krushchev replaced Stalin, Republicans on January 4 took control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Capitol seemed transported to a different planet.
The formerly wretched and scorned ascended to the chairs of the great committees and began dictating free-market agendas once dismissed as ridiculous and unworthy of notice. Their leaders took over the ornate offices of the Capitol itself, like Goths inside the gates of Rome.
The new House majority leader, former economics professor Dick Armey, could be seen standing outside before a bank of television cameras quoting at length from Thomas Sowell.
In the House, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt passed the gavel to Newt Gingrich. Republicans roared with jubilation, and the front page of The Washington Post declared, "The Berlin Wall of American politics came tumbling down."
The legislative machinery on Capitol Hill suddenly shifted into reverse. Instead of the Family and Medical Leave Act—the first major bill passed by the previous Congress, requiring employers to grant special time off—Congress took up a measure to stop unfunded federal mandates on state and local governments.
Where last year Washington labored on a health-care program to take over a seventh of the U.S. economy, now it is pushing through the Contract with America, a 10-point blueprint of unapologetic conservatism. Reporters now treat the contract as seriously as they once treated health care, inquiring about regulatory cost-benefit analysis as they once detailed the intricacies of health alliances.
At the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes and entitlements, free marketeer William Archer took the chair long held by Chicago Democrat Dan Rostenkowski, defeated in November. Archer said he wants to abolish the income tax.
A Senate Banking Committee hearing on financial derivatives, blamed for the Orange County fiscal collapse, would normally have launched major regulatory backlash. Instead, the panel declared no need for further regulation. "Don't blame financial markets for the bad judgment on the part of participants in that market," said Sen. Phil Gramm, another former economics professor.
Over in the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Chairman William Roth employed tactics long honed by Democrats at committee hearings: lining up heaps of favorable witnesses first and leaving an opponent or two speaking to empty hearing rooms in the late afternoon.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici vowed at a press conference to abolish 100 federal programs. "Why do you all look so gloomy?" Domenici asked reporters. "We're going to have a revolution in your thinking too."
Republican governors met with the new leadership and announced plans for an unprecedented transfer of welfare programs, including AFDC cash assistance, back to the states. Reporters mobbed the Republican governors afterwards, smelling power like range cattle smell water, and scrambling over chairs to catch their comments. Three years ago, Michigan's John Engler and Massachusetts's William Weld addressed a half-empty room at a tiny Cato Institute conference that passed completely unnoticed by the outside world.
California's Chris Cox, who once couldn't get his name into a newspaper, was profiled on the front page of The Wall Street Journal as chairman of the House GOP Policy Committee. He has been reading David Stockman's book about why the Reagan Revolution failed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Cox said, "and that is don't be David Stockman. Don't think that you must accomplish everything instantly and that if you fail, God intended it to be the way it is.
"The federal government is 200 years old, and every single part of it was initially built for a reason," Cox said. "We can't simply assume it away. It's going to be hard work to take it apart as necessary, and leave in place what Americans truly desire in the 21st century."
The debate will no doubt be long and bloody, but what is most striking is how its terms have shifted. November's electoral quake shook Washington's foundation. Perhaps it will soon dissolve into the cynical posturing that usually prevails. But one could not help sensing that first week that the end of nearly half a century of Democratic rule might bring with it the end of the New Deal era of soft socialism. Who, after all, would have thought that the libertarian Cato Institute would ever be one of Washington's hottest think tanks?
Contributing Editor Carolyn Lochhead is Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.