Government Spending

Revolutionary History

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The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution?, By Linda Killian, Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 496 pages, $28.00

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report, By Newt Gingrich. New York: HarperCollins, 256 pages, $25.00.

When they took control of Congress in 1994, Republicans promised to cut spending and transform Washington politics. Since then, they've had good days and bad days. May 22 of this year was especially rotten. On that date, the House approved a six-year, $218 billion authorization of federal highway and mass transit programs.

It's easy to measure just how bad this bill is. First, give a literal interpretation to the term "pork barrel," and reckon how much real, edible, dead-pig pork we could buy with $218 billion. Pork comes in many varieties, so which should we use? In light of how much courage lawmakers showed on this issue, the logical choice is "boneless." Supermarkets sell boneless pork for $3.39 a pound, so the highway bill equals about 64 billion pounds of pork.

That's 237 pounds for every man, woman and child in the United States. Think about that: Unless you are unusually big, your share of the highway bill exceeds your body weight.

No diabolical Democrats force-fed fat into a reluctant GOP. Republicans were the main culprits, gleefully turning from Jenny Craig into Orson Welles. They voted for the bill 143-56. Even the "revolutionary" Republicans first elected in 1994 supported it by a margin of 32-18.

Accordingly, the subtitle of The Freshmen is especially timely: "What happened to the Republican Revolution?" Linda Killian, a former reporter for Forbes, takes a long, anecdotal look at the House GOP class of 1994, focusing on a dozen members. She gives special attention to Van Hilleary of Tennessee, a good case study. Early in 1995, Hilleary helped lead the fight for congressional term limits–which became an embarrassing rout. Republicans wasted energy squabbling over several different versions, including Hilleary's proposal to let each state set its own limit. Many nominal supporters were quietly happy to see term limits die, since they now had the majority and were never serious about the idea in the first place.

At the time, the term limits vote seemed a rare exception: Before their 100-day deadline, Republicans won House passage of all the other elements of the Contract with America. By the following year, however, retreats were becoming more frequent. From a free market perspective, an especially troubling vote came when the House approved a 90-cent increase in the minimum wage. Meeting with constituents in 1995, Hilleary voiced the feelings of most people in his party: "I'm a free-market person, and I think the free market ought to set the wage." Yet 93 Republicans ended up voting for the increase, including Hilleary and 28 other freshmen.

What happened? Despite its subtitle, Killian's book does not supply a detailed explanation, instead putting narrative ahead of analysis. (A more systematic study is Nicol Rae's recently released Conservative Reformers.) Nevertheless, The Freshmen does contain some clues. With a good eye for detail, Killian notices that lawmakers "are yessed, kowtowed to, and generally stroked by everyone, even staffers who work for other members." Who would want to lose such treatment over a little thing like principle?

The lust for re-election can quickly turn revolutionaries into Romanovs. Take Hilleary's fellow freshman from Tennessee, Zach Wamp. (Say the name aloud: It's the sound of a phaser stunning a Klingon.) He began his congressional career as a zealous budget cutter but soon became a vocal advocate of such classic pork barrels as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Even when Republicans want to do the right thing, they find it hard to make their case to the public. The class of 1994 had soaked up Newt Gingrich's teachings about strategy, tactics, and rhetoric, but balked at his suggestion that they actually read a list of books. Says Killian: "Many freshmen, Hilleary among them, ignored the list, insisting they had no time for reading." Gingrich's list included Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which Hilleary had never heard of.

That says a lot. Some GOP lawmakers, such as Californians Chris Cox and David Dreier, really can engage in high-level intellectual debate. As for the rest, too many start floundering when the discussion moves beyond their staff-written talking points. It's not that floor debate directly changes roll-call votes; rather, C-Span and talk shows influence attentive voters. When House Republicans go on television only to face evisceration at the hands of Barney Frank, their morale plummets and they cave in.

The Freshmen would have been a more useful book if it had spent more time on the political context and less on vignettes that go nowhere. A whole chapter describes the troubles of Utah Rep. Enid Waldholtz, whose career crashed when her husband turned out to be a big fat crook. It's a sad tale, but not representative of anything else. How many other lawmakers are married to 300 pounds of criminality?

For a while, Newt Gingrich was heading for the same weight class. But as he recounts in his memoir-cum-manifesto, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott gave him some chastening advice just before President Clinton's 1997 State of the Union Address. When the camera's on, said Lott, lean forward so as to minimize your girth. An embarrassed Gingrich then went on a weight-loss program and, as the jacket photo suggests, it worked.

Alas, all Washington ailments do not lend themselves to such straightforward cures. In a thoughtful introductory chapter, Gingrich acknowledges that he had underrated the difficulty of changing the federal government. The experience of the 104th Congress reminded him that a speaker must contend with a Senate that gives blocking power to the minority party and a president who wields the power of the veto. Other chapter headings point to lessons both sensible and obvious: "Pick Your Fights Wisely," "Stay on Offense," and "Learn to Keep Your Mouth Shut." Apparently he remembers the title of a 1996 book by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf: Tell Newt to Shut Up!

This book has weaknesses. First, it's the memoir of an active politician who must still appeal to voters and deal with the colleagues he writes about. Works in this genre lack the candor of, say, The Confessions of St. Augustine. In Gingrich's telling, he regarded last summer's abortive internal coup as a series of misunderstandings among well-intentioned people. Press accounts indicate that he was a wee bit angrier than he lets on here.

Another problem is more peculiar to Gingrich. Though he has a lively mind, he often lacks intellectual discipline, undercutting himself through overstatement. In Lessons, he talks about Washington Post stories "designed to keep us off balance" and approvingly quotes a GOP consultant that media polls are "deliberately" biased against the GOP. Bias yes, conspiracy no. Mainstream reporters surely see the world through a liberal lens, but it's hard to prove that they are intentionally skewing their own stories.

In the same vein, he wisely advises against underestimating the skill and tenacity of Democratic politicians, then proceeds to overestimate their unity. When he depicts the Democrats as a lockstep party "committed to policies and institutions that often violate the public's sense of decency," he is indulging in caricature, not serious political thought.

His policy prescriptions are sketchy. Noting that the federal, state, and local levels of government now take up about 38 percent of our income, he proposes to set a peacetime limit on all taxes at 25 percent. "This should not, however, be done by passing a federal law," he says. "As with social security reform, I think we must have a national dialogue and build a national majority for these goals."

The book is quite specific on one policy issue: the highway bill. Though deficit concerns led him to postpone action from the fall of 1997 to spring of 1998, Gingrich calls it "a meritorious bill." He argues that the money would come not from general revenues but from a highway trust fund overflowing with proceeds from the federal levy on gasoline. That rationale raises an obvious question: Instead of spending all the money on concrete, why not slash the gas tax? Wouldn't that be a big step toward the goal of limiting the total tax take?

Gingrich suggests the answer: "[E]ven in a conservative Republican Congress the pressure for more transportation spending is enormous." He could have stricken transportation from that sentence. Though his own commitment to economic conservatism has been spotty (see "The Many Faces of Newt Gingrich," February 1997), the problem goes beyond the speaker's office. Committee chairs want power, which means bigger federal programs to supervise. Backbench members want re-election, which means more pork to take home. No matter how tight-fisted a leader may be, it is hard to restrain those pressures.

Would Republicans act differently if they had bigger majorities in both chambers, along with control of the White House? Maybe, but if the highway bill is any sign, nobody should expect a revolution. That's a lesson we've all learned the hard way.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.