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."

Armey began his climb to majority leader when he became ranking member of the Joint Economic Committee in 1991. He turned a moribund minority post into a GOP communications center, instituting "rapid response" faxes and issuing reports and charts for Republicans to attack opposition policies.

Disgusted by the 1990 budget deal where President Bush reneged on his read-my-lips pledge not to raise taxes, Armey made a run for the Republican conference chairmanship, the third-ranking slot in the GOP congressional hierarchy. He took on Jerry Lewis, a moderate, deal-making Californian. It was a defining moment in Armey's rise to power. He won by four votes, using a highly organized member-lobbying system, touting his work at the JEC, and arguing that Lewis was part of the old guard that was going to keep Republicans in a permanent minority.

The clincher, recalls former aide Ed Gillespie, came when Armey sent House freshmen a how-to binder called Hitting the Ground Running. "It gave new members basic advice on how to set up their offices, their press operations, their staffs, their newsletters, their town meetings. The freshmen got this thing and they said, 'Wow, this is great, this is what I need, this is what I've been looking for,'" Gillespie says. "That same day in the mail they got from Jerry Lewis–the House Republican Conference Chairman–a photo album that had everybody's Christmas cards in it, with pictures of their families. It was the silliest thing. The contrast between what Armey had given them and what Jerry Lewis had given them really kind of sealed the deal for him."

It surprised no one that when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, Armey ran unopposed for majority leader. "There's a substance to him," says John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College who has written extensively on the contemporary Republican Party. (Pitney is also a REASON contributing editor.) "He knows what he's doing. He knows his policy, and that does count for something on the Hill. He has a very clear intellectual construct and he works to put that into policy." Far more than most politicians, what drives Armey is his belief in ideas and their power. He's quick to quote Adam Smith, Friedman, and economist Thomas Sowell, and he has written a respected textbook called Price Theory: A Policy-Welfare Approach.

Less-sympathetic observers use different terms to convey Armey's style and points of reference. Biographical sketches typically describe him as gruff, rough-edged, a crude ideologue, a "political brawler" of "impolitic bluntness."

"He is ideological," grants former aide Gillespie. "But only in [Washington] is it pejorative that you actually believe in something."

In fact, it's not even necessarily pejorative in Washington. Armey's forthrightness is seen by many members as an asset in a town where evasion is an art form. "Frankly, I would rather deal with a Dick Armey, where you know where he is on the issues and he's true to his program," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal California Democrat for whom Armey is an arch ideological enemy. "There's no illusion and no misrepresentation in terms of what he stands for," Pelosi says. "He doesn't mince words."

The same holds true for many Republican moderates–the ones who would ostensibly block Armey's ascent to the speakership. "I've been in meetings where the subject matter was, for example, a woman's right to choose, and he manages very effectively," says Rep. Tom Campbell, a GOP moderate from Silicon Valley. "No one doubts he is on the other side of the issue, but he tells people exactly what he can accomplish, how far he believes compromise is possible," says Campbell, who adds that he is "very high on Armey."

Whether one sees Armey's dedication to core principles as a sign of character or ideological inflexibility, no one disputes that this quality has translated into a fearsome reputation when it comes to legislation.

"The only way Armey ever gives in is when he's crushed," says one close observer. "They have to roll him. He doesn't go into meetings thinking, 'Let me see what I can get, let's get to the middle, let's compromise.' He goes in saying, 'This is what I want to win,' and the only way you beat him is when Democrats are united and there are enough Republicans to peel off to cause us to lose a vote. He's not a player like Gingrich, who wants adoration and can't wait to hear himself talk."

Ironically, of late Armey has had to defend himself against charges that, like Gingrich, his cutting edge has been dulled by power. Certainly, the torpor of the current Congress is in marked contrast to the first Republican-dominated session. It's a fair question: Is the GOP leadership, and Armey in particular, acting smarter these days, or have they just been whipped? Or, as one Republican member of Congress asks, When the choice comes down to cowardice or taking a risk, which route will Armey choose?

"Some of us are worried that Armey has 'grown in office,'" says The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, who recently wrote a piece urging rank-and-file insurrection against a "brain-dead Republican Party, cowering in the halls of Congress." Kristol says he understands that Armey, as majority leader, has to be responsible and cautious. "But he also wants to let friends on the outside know that he remains something of a firebrand at heart, and that he's sympathetic with the insurrectionaries," says Kristol.

On at least a surface level, there is a new, more-modulated Dick Armey in office. Gone are the incendiary phrases–he once called Hillary Clinton a "Marxist," ridiculed the Family and Medical Leave Act as "yuppie welfare," and labeled ClintonCare "a Dr. Kevorkian prescription for jobs." In late February, Armey issued a "Time to Get Moving on the 105th [Congressional] Agenda" memo. In it, he downplayed legislative "drama" and urged a "broad communications effort that must begin this year." The message was more caution than action. "We have settled in as the majority party, returning to regular order and recognizing that we have more than a two-year window to undo the policies that for 30 years have undermined families and institutions across America."

But the Texan vigorously disputes that he has "grown in office." He insists that his principles have not changed, but that as majority leader he must play a different role than he did as a simple representative. "You don't hear all the old hot firebrand rhetoric anymore," he concedes. "I know that I have moderated my public discourse, out of consideration for my colleagues. But my line is, just because you don't hear my thunder doesn't mean I'm not there."

Certainly, Armey has reason to cool divisive rhetoric. The GOP majority is razor-thin in the House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 227 to 210. As majority leader, Armey must get 218 votes from moderates and conservatives, operating with a nine-vote margin of error. (The spread in the Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 55 to 45, is five votes.) Clinton remains president, and despite talk of leaving a legacy, seems no more willing than before the election to take any unpopular steps on the budget. Under such circumstances, particularly with Gingrich still leading the House, Armey can do little more than push for smaller victories–such as reforming public housing, consolidating job-training programs, and trimming corporate welfare–until the larger ones grow within reach.

"At every juncture you've got to make a decision," he says, explaining his approach to legislation. "If I'm going to take this course of action, is the policy gain more than offset by the political loss? [In the last session], we were getting political losses and no policy gain. That's like saying, 'I'm ready to give my life to have all debts and no assets.' So we have to be smarter."

Armey points to the two government shutdowns in 1995 as examples of "big" political mistakes that led to no policy gains. "We telegraphed punches that sometimes we didn't even have to throw," he says. And, in the months leading up to the showdown, "we had Republicans out in the world talking about shutting the government down. Then we had the unbelievable circumstance where the president vetoed the bill, shut down the government, and we got credit for it. Why? Because the president never talked about it until the day it passed, and then he only said one thing: 'The Republicans are shutting down the government.'"

"The challenge facing Dick Armey," observes political scientist Pitney, "is that the strategies and tactics for winning a majority are not necessarily the same for exercising power. It's one thing to be confrontational when you're in the minority and another when you have to hold together a very narrow majority."

Armey is well aware of the difference. Indeed, as majority leader, he may now spend as much time forming a consensus within his own party as he does sparring with the opposition. He says he must serve as an "honest broker between the warring factions" within the party, which means scaling back the legislative agenda to areas of common agreement. "Nobody in the room doubts where I am on [any issue]. But they also need to know that I'm going to be there to facilitate them working out a point where they can stand with 218 votes on that point. Now that probably will not get me 100 percent of what I want, but from my personal point of view, it gets the ball someplace down the field," says Armey, alluding to William Bennett's observation that in politics you are either moving the ball on your opponents or they are moving the ball on you. "As long as I'm moving the ball on them," says Armey, "I think there's progress being made."

That said, it's not immediately clear that the House Republicans are gaining much yardage or even that they are headed toward the goal line of less government and more freedom. Certainly, the goals envisioned by Armey these days are a far cry from the heady early days of the Republican "revolution" when a dramatic downsizing of government seemed imminent. Armey insists he has not walked away from smaller-ticket items such as abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and reducing the estate tax, or bigger-ticket items such as Social Security reform and the flat tax. The reality of leading, however, has changed the time line somewhat. "I still intend to get there," he says, "but I'm smart enough to know that I ain't going to get there overnight."

One lesson that the majority leader has learned is the need to explain an agenda to the public. Voters, he says, have to understand what Congress is doing and why, whether it's ending farm subsidies or introducing vouchers in Medicare. "You've got to do it in a methodical way, which is a hard concept for those of us who waited forever and ever to take over," says one Armey loyalist. So, for example, Armey says the time to have a "responsible public discourse" on Social Security has not yet arrived. Medicare, however, is now a different story, despite the whipping the GOP took on the issue before and during the last election. Because the system's insolvency is imminent, says Armey, serious debate is possible.

On the one hand, such a rationale comes dangerously close to justifying inaction and failure. Consider Armey's analysis of his opposition to last year's minimum-wage increase. "When I jumped up and said I will fight the minimum-wage increase with every fiber in my being, what I did–and frankly completely unnecessarily–was I gave [opponents] a sound bite," he says. "And that sound bite, remember, was not a policy victory, that was a political victory [for my opponents] that resulted in a policy loss. We allowed ourselves to be drawn on the political field of battle when we didn't have to be." Perhaps. But if a Ludwig von Mises-reading, Milton Friedman-quoting free-market majority leader does not publicly speak out against a minimum-wage increase, who will?

On the other hand, however, Armey's new approach could potentially lead to more productive, if less bombastic, legislative sessions. With arts funding, for instance, he predicts that as Congress searches for places to trim spending–a goal largely embraced by the voting public–"People will find their own way to the National Endowment for the Arts," he says, noting that the last Congress halved the NEA's budget. "But if I take them on head first, then I'm just some troglodyte who is opposed to art. And I lose that debate."

Similarly, Armey stresses that, as a majority party, Republicans must use new strategies to counter Democratic attempts to expand the welfare state through such warm and fuzzy proposals as mammogram requirements or expanded health care spending on children. Every time Democrats propose that the government provide some new entitlement such as a three-day hospital stay for new mothers, says Armey, the traditional conservative response has been to denounce the plan as costly and ill-considered. It's an argument, he says, that Democrats will always win, "because they've got love and compassion and heart on their side." What his side must do, says Armey, is recast its positions in terms that reach the heart as well as the head.

He uses Superfund as an example. Rather than harp on what a disaster it is and try to eliminate it, says Armey, Republicans plan to talk about doing a better job of protecting children from toxic waste. "We've poured $34 billion over 16 years into Superfund and got damned few clean sites out of it," he notes. "The traditional Republican way of going about that discussion is to say, 'Boy, we're really going to get those trial lawyers–they've been profiteering off this.' So everybody says, 'Oh, I get it. Republicans are mad at trial lawyers.' Who wants to get excited about that? So we say instead, 'We want to clean up these sites, we want to fix them.' If we talk in those terms, everybody says, 'Yeah, let's go do that.' And as trial lawyers see this train going down the track, they're going to jump up and say, 'No, no, no, don't do that.' They'll show themselves [as] the bad guys in a way that will be recognized."

What Republicans must do, says Armey, is to move beyond simple nay-saying toward presenting positive alternatives to past failures, whether in the environment, public safety, education, or anything else. The public, says Armey, wants a cleaner environment, safer communities, and better schools; to be successful, Republicans must demonstrate a better way to get them.

Public housing is an obvious target for Republicans, he says. Governmental failure is so obvious and so widely conceded–by the public, by Democrats, by big-city mayors, and by tenants themselves–that Republicans can step in with alternatives. Armey is calling for a repeal of the Housing Act of 1937 and a movement toward more local, flexible control and greater accountability on the part of both tenants and management. There needs to be more latitude, he says, in evicting bad tenants and rewarding good ones.

Reducing corporate welfare, expanding medical savings accounts, reforming product liability laws, deregulating utilities, reforming taxes–each offers similar possibilities and each has widespread political and public support, says Armey. Once enacted, such policies also can widen public experience with–and embrace of–more-market-oriented approaches to problems for which Democrats have always said bigger government was the only answer.

Armey's new tactics will be put to the test during the budget battle looming this summer. By politely receiving Clinton's plan and letting the press attack it, the Republicans are already off to a better start than last year, he says. "Rather than have Dick Armey jump up and say the president's budget is as phony as a $3.00 bill, the press says, 'We've got a problem–it's got net tax increases. We've got a problem–his plan for Medicare won't work.'" If the press reveals these things, he says, the GOP is in a better negotiating position to cut overall spending.

"We're still going to end up with a budget that we have prepared," Armey says. "There is nobody that I know of in our majority, House or Senate, who says, Let's go with a wink and a nod again. But in the meantime, why not have the public appreciate the way we're going about it, rather than thinking we're a bunch of mean-spirited naysayers just looking for a chance to criticize the president? Most of our folly is borne out of own sense of insecurity and impatience. We want everybody to know our virtues and to know it right now, today. And we live in fear that they may never know. So we try to force it. The truth will come out."

Maybe–although truth and the political process typically run in different directions. While the press has raised questions about the Clinton's budget, they are likely to pick apart the Republican alternatives as well. What happens then? Will the Republicans acquiesce in the face of press criticism and a relatively popular president who has demonstrated an ability to punch all the right sympathy buttons, such as increased funding for child care and tax credits for college tuition? The Republicans have long failed to put a human face on their plans to cut spending and it is far from certain they will succeed this time around. Given the reality of the GOP's narrow congressional majority and the general consensus–however vague and abstract–that government spending must be reined in, the best-case scenario for this budget includes modest spending cuts and perhaps some minor, heavily targeted tax relief.

The next few months may shape up as the most important in Dick Armey's political career. If he is able to engineer even modest success on his terms, it could prove enough to kick him up to the speaker's chair (or to consolidate greater power within his current post).

Faced with the wild ride of Gingrich's speakership, many Republicans now concede it was a mistake to centralize so much power in one person. Instead of a giant, they are now simply looking for a tall man. "Our misperception of this whole thing now that we're in the majority is that the speaker or majority leader or any of our legislative leaders ought to be the Ronald Reagans of the 21st century," says one high-ranking House Republican. "In looking for the perfect combination of legislator, philosopher, strategist, vote counter, TV talking head, best-selling author, and movie personality, we're overstating the job description." When former Democratic leaders held less-overwhelming majorities, says the member, they saw their main job as getting a majority on any given day, a strategy that worked pretty well to slowly secure the sort of government they sought.

Oddly, it may turn out that a figure with a reputation as an uncompromising ideologue such as Armey will prove to be the sort of leader who can most effectively take some small steps toward reducing government. When it gets down to a battle of inches, a Speaker Armey might prove more likely to stick to his game plan of less government and lower taxes. Certainly, such principles provide a philosophical consistency that Gingrich has always lacked. One assumes there would be no courting of Alec Baldwin and the NEA, no intoxication with faddish futurism, no sudden abandonment of tax cuts.

Improbably enough, if the Republicans slowly dismantle the entitlement state one step at a time–a process that will require intense conferencing and tactful negotiation–it may well be because they elect a speaker best known for his philosophical inflexibility and reactionary reliance on a "two-note" mantra of less government and lower taxes.

Contributing Editor Carolyn Lochhead is Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.