When the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to increase the minimum wage in May, surprises abounded on Capitol Hill. Speaker Newt Gingrich undercut his three top deputies, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and Conference Chairman John Boehner–all of whom opposed the wage hike–when he stated that he would not stand in the way of policy supported by 80 percent of the American people. Nine Republican committee chairmen and Deputy Majority Whip Billy Tauzin voted for the increase. And, most strikingly, 48 of the 93 Republican votes in favor of a higher minimum wage came from members who were elected in 1992 or 1994–30 of those votes from the supposedly radical freshman class.
Why did these junior legislators cut and run? If you believe the Beltway conventional wisdom, which informs us that these Republican short-timers want to torch the federal regulatory state, the freshmen should have stormed into Gingrich's office, demanded an apology and a retraction, and then voted unanimously against the wage hike. Advocates of congressional term limits also consider these freshmen "citizen legislators" who would rather roll back the regulatory state than support pork-barrel projects in their districts or otherwise pander to their constituents come re-election time.
But the minimum wage vote was only one of a series of House votes suggesting that the Republican Class of 1994 is not as reflexively anti-statist as we have been led to believe. It in fact contains a significant group of legislators whose instincts are more populist than anti-government, legislators who place what they see as their constituents' interests ahead of any overarching government-cutting agenda. If freshman support for several regulatory initiatives is any indication, a significant contingent of the voters who replaced Democrats with Republicans in 1994 might not want government to be smaller as much as they want it to be responsive–demanding that members of Congress do what their constituents want, which may well include new regulations or pork-barrel spending projects. Republican populists could cause trouble for Armey and other party leaders who try to roll back or eliminate popular government programs.
Among the other populist regulations enacted by the 104th Congress were the television V-chip and content controls on the Internet (included in the massive telecommunications bill), along with the immigration bill's "employment verification" system designed to stop the hiring of illegal immigrants. These new government controls on individual behavior would cost the Treasury very little, and are thus perceived as "cost-free" by lawmakers. The telecommunications bill received 414 votes, including unanimous Republican support. And despite the efforts of freshman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) to remove the verification system (which he called "dialing 1-800-BIG-BROTHER") from the immigration bill, Chabot's amendment lost by a 159-260 vote, gaining the votes of only 29 Republican freshmen.
These results call into question an argument made by supporters of the cause most identified with the freshmen: congressional term limits. Cato Institute President Ed Crane makes a common assertion in the August/September issue of REASON: "Americans clearly desire less government–much less," writes Crane. "The single strongest piece of evidence for that proposition is that 80 percent of them support term limits….The common sense of a citizen legislature would give us Medical Savings Accounts, privatized Social Security, a repeal of the income tax, and much more."
If true, then voting against a minimum-wage increase should have been a no-brainer for these "citizen legislators." Increasing the minimum wage, for instance, would impose a new unfunded mandate on businesses, allowing the government to force employers to pay workers more without giving companies money to offset their higher costs. Unfunded mandates are supposed to be anathema to the freshmen. Yet even this apparent contradiction of the Contract with America's decentralist message gained the support of more than 40 percent of the Class of 1994.
The populist freshmen include some of Capitol Hill's fieriest reformers, legislators who see nothing contradictory about simultaneously bashing Beltway elites, demanding fiscal responsibility, and delivering pork to their constituents. Buchanan supporter Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Perot acolyte Linda Smith (R-Wash.) held the House Budget Committee hostage when it tried to privatize federal facilities in their districts–the Oak Ridge Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration, respectively. Preserving high-paying, local engineering jobs and subsidized electric power is much more popular back home than defending "cheap foreign labor" or "corrupt lobbyists"–especially when the beneficiaries of an open, dynamic economic system are harder to identify than, say, your neighbor Joe who works at Oak Ridge.
By contrast, Dick Chrysler of Michigan, who has led the campaign to abolish the Department of Commerce, has been touted as one of the leading government-cutting freshmen. Yet he voted for the minimum-wage hike. Why would a self-described opponent of industrial policy wants the government to set wage rates? An aide explained that after the House included a few minor protections for teenagers, people who work for tips, and "computer professionals," Chrysler felt comfortable voting for the wage hike. Far from making Chrysler's vote seem consistent with his anti-regulatory views, the aide's explanation is an attempt to justify letting the government pick economic "winners" and "losers." Those businesses and employees benefiting from the exemptions Chrysler fought for would get favorable treatment from government regulators; others wouldn't.
No single demographic characteristic seems to distinguish the 30 freshmen who voted for the wage increase from their colleagues. But each of them shares at least one of these features: Some of the populists represent traditional "rust-belt" constituencies–19 of them hail from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or the Midwest. They won by relatively narrow margins in 1994; another 19 freshmen (not all from the Rust Belt) received 53 percent of the vote or less. Or they represent districts that voted for Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race more heavily than the nation overall; 20 freshmen who voted to raise the minimum wage come from districts that gave Perot more than the 19 percent of the vote. This combination–a blue-collar district stocked with Perot voters that hardly gave its representative to Congress a resounding mandate–could indeed cower a fresh-faced legislator. If you view Chrysler as a populist rather than a government-cutter on this issue, his vote makes some sense. He faces a tough re-election campaign against former state Senator Debbie Stabenow, who The Detroit News reports was recruited by labor leaders to challenge Chrysler. Stabenow will benefit from the AFL-CIO's plans to double its typical campaign war chest and spend an additional $35 million against Republican incumbents this year. The union has aimed many of its attacks at freshmen; one of the targets is Dick Chrysler, who is in a statistical dead heat with Stabenow.
If this group of populists holds onto their seats this fall they may cause Armey and the more anti-goverment Republicans additional trouble–and in the process may become their own worst enemies. Along with interest on the federal debt, spending on retirement programs, health care for the poor, and other entitlements will consume the entire federal budget within a dozen years or so. Whoever controls Congress and the White House after this November will have to once again consider cutting benefits, making further reductions in military spending, privatizing such commercial government functions as power generation, and eliminating federal agencies altogether. Sooner rather than later, these populists will face a difficult choice: Cut funding for programs their constituents want to keep alive; abandon their fixation with deficit reduction; or end their hostility to new taxes.
The other freshmen–the government cutters–have gotten more attention than the populists, in part, because they have been willing to buck their leaders–and the opinion polls–to lead important if occasionally unsuccessful campaigns against several new regulatory inititatives. While Gingrich was demonstrating his risk-aversion by letting the minimum-wage vote go forward, David McIntosh (R-Ind.) used his regulatory-reform subcommittee to conduct congressional hearings that attacked the wage increase. Former U. S. Attorney and freshman Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), defying Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), joined civil-liberties and gun-owners' groups to challenge constitutionally questionable language in the anti-terrorism bill; this unlikely alliance successfully amended the bill, removing a provision that could have defined garden-variety domestic disputes as acts of terrorism.
And as would-be censors placed content limits on Internet speech (also known as the Communications Decency Act) in the telecommunications bill, Rick White (R-Wash.) offered an amendment that would not criminalize indecent language in cyberspace but would instead let parents screen their children's on-line communications; in early June, a three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia ruled the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional.
Still, the lines between the populists and the government cutters remain blurry. Some populists, like Buchananite Zach Wamp and Perotista Linda Smith, are ideologues. Others appear to champion populist issues when doing so will help them get re-elected. Kansan Sam Brownback has joined Smith to offer tough limits on campaign finance that are wildly popular with Perot's political organization. Included in their reforms is a constitutionally problematic provision that would prevent congressional candidates from taking financial contributions from persons who don't reside in their districts.
Yet Brownback joined with Chrysler to successfully remove cuts in legal immigration from the House immigration bill; reducing the flow of immigration would expand the size of government, either by increasing the cost of surveillance at the borders or by requiring citizens and non-citizen residents to carry identification papers. Brownback, who is trying to win the Republican nomination for Bob Dole's old Senate seat, now faces attack ads from such populist organizations as the Federation for American Immigration Reform. (Freshman Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan was similarly able to remove cuts in immigration from Alan Simpson's Senate bill.)
The willingness of so many short timers to approve a higher minimum wage may be easier to understand if you consider that these legislators are neophytes spooked by their first re-election campaigns. They have never experienced vicious attacks focused at them by deep-pocketed interest groups whose constituents demand tax subsidies or favorable treatment by regulators. The AFL-CIO's $35-million campaign is but one example of a Beltway-based lobbying organization focusing its wrath at a reduction in the regulatory state. When the Republicans first proposed some modest but necessary Medicare reforms, labor unions and left-wing advocacy groups ran attack ads against a few dozen freshmen and sophomores. Michigan Republicans, for instance, claim that Democrats and unions have aired more than 200 spots against Chrysler. By running scared, some of these "citizen legislators" have demonstrated that, unlike Cincinnatus, they would rather keep their seats in Congress than return to their plows. It seems that some folks really would prefer to be legislators rather than citizens.
A version of this column appeared in the August 11, 1996, edition of The Orange County (California) Register.