Class Consciousness

The House Republican freshmen: always aggressive, sometimes obnoxious, hardly monolithic


Among the many terms that might describe freshman Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.), "grandmotherly" wouldn't top the list. The steely-eyed, 45-year-old former tax consultant may be a grandmother, but she's anything but demure as she lectures a group of conservative activists on her political reform agenda. "We need to control special interests before we can balance this budget," she says of her proposal. "After the '96 election, there will be no more gifts, no more contributions from corporations, no more from unions."

Not everyone in the room is excited by Smith's objectives. "That woman is doing the work of the devil," says a prominent GOP strategist after the meeting. "How on earth does she think a gift ban would roll back the federal government?" asks another observer. But with the blessing of Majority Leader Dick Armey, Smith will see her lobbying and gift reforms come up for a vote on November 16, after this story goes to press. By allowing a vote on Smith's agenda, Armey abandoned Majority Whip Tom DeLay, perhaps his closest friend in Congress. DeLay opposes the measure in part because an absolute ban on trips offered legislators by businesses and nonprofits might prevent him from promoting and attending the charity golf tournament he sponsors each year in his native Texas.

Frequently described as feisty, rambunctious, and rowdy, the House Republican freshmen have alternately boosted and antagonized congressional leaders. Elected as "outsiders," the class has elevated reforming the political process above all other issues, an obsession that occasionally contradicts their determination to cut back the size of the federal government. And despite their much-ballyhooed class solidarity, individual freshmen have shown they can act independently when they feel duty calls.

In 1994, the GOP picked up 52 seats and replaced 21 additional Republican incumbents. Party leaders Newt Gingrich and Armey (along with pollster Frank Luntz) galvanized the class behind the Contract With America, which they sold as a blueprint for reforming and rolling back the federal government. But the Contract was about more than congressional accountability. Luntz consciously designed it to lure back to the GOP the people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992. It accomplished that marvelously well: While half of the self-described Perot voters chose Republicans in 1992 congressional races, two-thirds voted Republican in 1994.

The Contract's unifying message and the Perotistas' zeal for cleaning up Congress have provided opportunities and challenges for the new Republican leaders. Yet the Contract's reformist message was really nothing new. Four years earlier, another group of GOP freshmen came to Washington, vowing to shake up the establishment. While their numbers were smaller, and their minority status prevented them from directly influencing policy, the Gang of Seven's agenda and tactics set the stage for the class of '94.

The 1990 elections came on the heels of the Bush administration's budget cave-in and allegations about problems inside the House bank and post office. Republicans lost a handful of seats, but seven new GOP members John Boehner (Ohio), John Doolittle (Calif.), Scott Klug (Wis.), Jim Nussle (Iowa), Frank Riggs (Calif.), Rick Santorum (Pa.), and Charlie Taylor (N.C.) worked together to embarrass Democratic leaders who refused to disclose the names of members who had overdrawn their House bank accounts and the number and amounts of those overdrafts. By relentlessly staging events for the press (Nussle once entered the House wearing a paper bag on his head) and using one-minute speeches on C-SPAN, the Gang of Seven shamed the Democrats into full disclosure.

Once they accomplished their short-term objective, the gang didn't disappear. In 1992, for instance, Boehner led the drive to complete ratification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from raising members' pay during its current term. Thirty-nine states had ratified the amendment, but six of them did so in the 18th century. Boehner insisted that the ratification votes were valid, and when the Archivist of the United States agreed, the amendment became law.

When the Republicans took over Congress, the gang wasn't left behind. Santorum defeated Harris Wofford for a U.S. Senate seat in '94. Boehner is now chairman of the House Republican Conference, the number four post in the GOP leadership. Gingrich picked Nussle to lead the transition from Democratic to Republican control, and Klug as his point man on privatization.

The Gang of Seven demonstrated how a small but cohesive group, even in the minority party, could discombobulate the congressional establishment. Imagine, by contrast, how much clout a coalition that constitutes more than one-third of a slender House majority might possess.

The Beltway press corps considers the freshmen of '94 identical to the Gang of Seven, only 10 times bigger. From U.S. News to The New Republic, the media portray the class as unruly, obnoxious, relentlessly protective of any rogue members who might offend a party power broker, but always unified.

The most frequently cited example of the freshmen's alleged herd mentality occurred in October when Appropriations Committee member Mark Neumann (Wis.) refused to vote for a military spending bill. Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (La.), who had seen Neumann earlier vote against leadership-backed spending plans, bumped the freshman off of his subcommittee. Neumann complained to other freshmen, who went as a group to lobby Gingrich. Neumann not only won back his subcommittee seat; he also received a seat on the Budget Committee–the only freshman to sit on both committees.

While the freshmen may be protective of their own, however, they are far from monolithic. In fact, the class has divided into three distinct groups.

The Team Players. The freshman class is certainly the most interesting group of rookies since the Watergate Babies came to Washington 20 years ago. But not everybody can be a star; and if the Republicans are going to roll back the federal government, most of the people in this class, who will rarely make headlines outside their home districts, will have to do the grunt work for their party leaders.

Every revolution needs loyal foot soldiers; the team players should provide Newt's most reliable recruits. Few hail from traditional Republican districts. They won last year because the Contract gave them an agenda, and they'll remain its most dedicated defenders. Their chances for reelection depend entirely upon the ability of this Congress to get those items passed. As the Contract languishes in the Senate, their political futures become dicey. This group includes Fred Heineman (N.C.), Jack Metcalf (Wash.), and Dan Frisa (N.Y.).

The Coaching Staff. The freshmen repeat their revulsion with the Washington establishment like a mantra. But the people the freshmen picked to lead their class, the coaching staff, aren't government greenhorns. As one former congressional staffer with close ties to several freshmen puts it, the leaders of this class "have a maturity that forces them to leaven their opposition to Washington with their knowledge of the way the legislative process works."

Take class president Roger Wicker of Mississippi. As a 16-year-old, he was a page for Democrat Jamie Whitten, who retired last year after 22 terms in the House. Wicker, who was also a state senator and a staff member for then-Rep. Trent Lott, won Whitten's old seat.

Class vice president Mark Edward Souder worked for Indiana Sen. Dan Coats for four
years, eventually becoming Coats's deputy chief of staff. One of the two freshmen liaisons to the House leadership, Sue Myrick, was mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina; the other, David McIntosh of Indiana, was the executive director of Vice President Dan Quayle's Council of Competitiveness.

"Even-tempered" is the way the former Hill staffer describes the class leaders. They rarely lose their cool (in public, anyway), and while they may push some initiatives the party leaders can't stomach, they recognize that, to have any influence, they must remain loyal to the Republican bosses.

For instance, a group of 30 "New Federalists" led by Kansan Sam Brownback put together task forces that drafted proposals to abolish the Departments of housing, Energy, Education, and Commerce. The GOP leaders agreed to bring forward only the Commerce plan this year. Rather than making a public stink, the freshmen rallied around a proposal drawn up by freshman Dick Chrysler (Mich.), who ran the Commerce task force. Chrysler's plan–which unlike a competing proposal by veteran porkbarrel pol Bud Schuster (R-Pa.) would do away with the department–won the blessing of Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (Va.).

The Free Agents. Several freshmen, however, have shown little interest in preserving traditional congressional decorum. Neumann, a home builder, has engaged in shouting matches with constituents at town meetings. Texan Steve Stockman claimed that Attorney General Janet Reno committed premeditated murder during the Waco raid. Californian Andrea Seastrand defended a balanced-budget amendment on the House floor by reading verse written in the style of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. ("They will not try a balanced budget, Sam I am./They will not try it with a mouse./They will not try it in the House.") And then there's Sonny Bono.

There are a few outliers in this class. Some may just have an overactive sense of humor, such as Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who "hired" humor columnist Dave Barry to work as a press aide and speechwriter for a week. Yet others have taken stands on issues that have made the party elders a bit uncomfortable.

Occasionally these mavericks perform like garden-variety big-spending politicians. LaTourette voted against the House budget reconciliation because he objected to cuts in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid. Georgian Saxby Chambliss joined three other GOP renegades on the Agriculture Committee and voted against chairman
Pat Roberts's Freedom to Farm Act. (See "Bummer Crop," December 1995.) Linda Smith kept the leadership from privatizing the Bonneville Power Administration, saying she would not support privatization "if it is going to destroy the economy of our region."

Other freshmen, however, have opposed their leaders on matters of principle. Judiciary Committee member Steve Chabot, from Cincinnati, defied Lamar Smith (Tex.), chairman of the immigration subcommittee, and tried to remove an employment telephone verification system, tied to a national worker registry, from Smith's immigration-control bill. (See "Bringing the Border War Home," October 1995.) Chabot referred to the provision as "dialing 1-800-BIG -BROTHER." When his anti-registry amendment failed by a 15­–17 vote, he promised to try to remove the verification system from the bill when it reached the House floor. "I wasn't sent here to add to the power of the federal government or add to the burdens on working Americans," he said after the vote.

Chabot was also the only committee Republican who voted to split the immigration bill into two measures: an enforcement bill to control illegal immigration, and a separate set of limits on immigration visas. This amendment also failed, but he hopes party leaders will split the bill before it reaches the floor.

Georgian Bob Barr, a former CIA analyst and U.S. attorney, has also given Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (Ill.) a few headaches. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Senate rushed through a sweeping new anti-terrorist bill by a vote of 91­–8. But the House could never bring its own version, which Hyde championed, to the floor.

Hyde was stymied by a collection of privacy and civil liberties advocates, gun owners' groups, and the Congressional Black Caucus–the same coalition that temporarily derailed the 1994 crime bill. Barr was the coalition's most vocal Republican spokesman, expressing concerns about provisions that would make it easier for law enforcement agencies to tap telephone calls without first getting a court order. He also set off alarms about the bill's overly broad definition of terrorism, which would have made most crimes committed with a firearm federal offenses, and might have allowed police to define some domestic disputes as acts of terrorism. And he got Southern representatives, including some Democrats, on board by questioning the bill's expansion of the use of federal troops for routine law enforcement. By late September, Hyde admitted he couldn't get a majority to vote for the bill and removed it from consideration.

Barr, whom Gingrich appointed to head a task force on firearm policies, has experience as a federal prosecutor that could make him a formidable critic of criminal justice excesses. Gregory Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union suggests that Barr could inherit the mantle worn for three decades by former FBI agent Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who was a thorn in the sides of overreaching federal law enforcers until his retirement from the House in 1994.

Many of these free agents may not be rogue actors after all–a potential problem for Gingrich and company. The free agents instead may be defenders of the GOP agenda whose loyalty is divided by the infamous Perot voters. In the spring of 1994, The Evans & Novak Political Report suggested that the Democratic districts most ripe for a Republican takeover were those whose voters gave at least 60 percent of the 1992 presidential vote to George Bush plus Ross Perot.

Sure enough, 23 of the 52 seats that changed hands followed this formula. (See chart.) And Perot received a higher percentage of the vote in 18 of these districts than he did in the nation as a whole. Peter Roff, political director of GOPAC, the Republicans' political action committee and candidate-training organization, says most of the self-identified Perot voters are Reagan Democrats and Reagan independents for whom procedural reforms are often as important as reducing the overall size of the federal government. Perotistas constitute a crucial segment of the Republican coalition, but if the GOP's congressional majorities hinge on the Perot voters' support, such issues as term limits and campaign-finance reform may crowd entitlement and tax overhauls off the agenda.

As unlikely as the 1994 GOP takeover may have seemed when it happened, congressional Republicans had a chance to prepare for it. They started gaining strength when the Senate sustained a filibuster of President Clinton's stimulus package in 1993. The death of the Clinton health care plan, which came as the Contract was being born, made a Republican victory that November seem possible. As Newt Gingrich prepared to take charge of the House, he brought several party firebrands under his wing: Dick Armey, Ohio's John Kasich, Pennsylvania's Bob Walker, and, naturally, the Gang of Seven all of whom have offered invaluable help to the new speaker.

The class of '94, however, may pose a different challenge. Seventy-three legislators hailing from disparate districts are difficult to keep on the same page. Maintaining a majority is tougher than assembling it in the first place. And those pesky Perot voters may push a significant chunk of the junior members to pursue issues party leaders consider distractions.

The '94 freshmen may also need to exercise more of a commodity that has for them been in short supply: patience. After all, the GOP "revolution" hasn't yet reached the Senate, where two-thirds of the members haven't faced reelection, and power still resides with Bob Dole and accommodationist committee chairs John Chafee, Nancy Kassebaum, and Mark Hatfield. As long as the Senate continues to lag behind the House, rolling back Washington will remain problematic. After a couple of more congressional elections, we'll know if the '94 House freshmen constituted a revolutionary vanguard or a mere phalanx who temporarily held the expanding welfare state at bay.

Rick Henderson (DCReason@aol.com) is Washington editor of REASON.