May 14, 1996
THE GRAND OLD PARTY: A HOUSE DIVIDED?
Prior to the election of 1994, it could be said nobody cared about the Republican members of the House of Representatives. They received little coverage from the Washington press corps and very little respect from those Democrats who had held a majority for 40 years. Yet, in the stunning midterm election, those very same Republicans claimed control of both houses of Congress. They suddenly became the driving force behind most of the political agenda. With their "Contract with America" and new Speaker, Newt Gingrich, the Republican House members and those through out government were forced to form a consensus rather than just act as the voice of dissent.
Yet critics have said that the Republicans have not changed their minority party attitudes. They choose to pass legislation they know the President would veto rather than work with the Democrats.
How have the Republicans made the transition from a "permanent minority," a derogatory term associated with the House Republicans, to the ruling party? One of the few academic studies of the Republicans prior to the 1994 elections was the book "Congress' Permanent Minority?." In their book, coauthors William Connelly and John Pitney explored the differences within the Republican Party. They outlined a fundamental rift between the "responsible governing partners," those Republicans who worked with the Democrats, and the "bomb throwers," GOPers who actively criticized and attacked Democrats.
How have the internal differences in the Republican Party shaped its Congressional majorities? In this election year, will the fact that the "bomb throwers" have led the Congress negatively impact the Presidential and Congressional races for the GOP? Would a confrontational Congress disappear if Bob Dole were elected?
A question from Clarke Cagey of Baltimore, Maryland
Do Connelly and Pitney envision an eventual split in the Republican party, resulting from the cleavage between the party's libertarian and socially conservative components? Could anyone but another "Reagan" figure unite these two factions successfully?
Bill Connelly responds:
Former Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill once observed about the Democratic Party in the 1980s that it was not a single party, but rather five different parties under one roof. Our constitutional system virtually dictates that any majority party necessarily will be a coalition of disparate interests or factions. Newt Gingrich acknowledged this point when he said:
"We have to recognize that we have to get used to fighting ourselves at times and we have to recognize that we are in the business of conflict management. We are not in the business of conflict resolution. You only resolve conflicts by kicking people out and that means you become a minority. So, if you intend to be a majority, you have to be willing to live with a lot of conflict because that is the nature of a majority."
Conflict within our major parties is inevitable and not necessarily bad; indeed, it may be a sign of robust health.
Under Reagan there were sharp divisions within the GOP, just as there are today. It wasn't Ronald Reagan's charisma alone that held the Republican Party together. Individuals are important, but so are competing ideas and interests. Again, our institutions invite fragmentation. If the GOP intends to become the majority party, it will need to manage conflict between economic and social conservatives.
A question from John Norton of Annville, PA
Conventional wisdom says that the nation cannot be governed from Congress. Despite the success of the moment for the Contract with America and Speaker Gingrich, are we starting to see that, indeed, governmental leadership cannot originate in the House of Representatives?
Bill Connelly responds:
As executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee Ed Rollins once angered Whip Newt Gingrich by publicly arguing that party realignments are presidency-driven, not "Whip-driven." While it may be true that presidents are in a better position to provide direction and focus to our politics and policy, it is also clear that a congressional party can set the political agenda as witness the House GOP efforts since November 1994. In many ways, Gingrich and company have established the predicate for the 1996 election. Just as the 1930 congressional election prefigured the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, Republicans are hoping that the 1994 election has set the stage for a complete takeover of our national government by the GOP in 1996.
As we argue in the book, our separation of powers system provides both "friction" and "fission." While Congress certainly exists as a potential brake on presidents' policy ambitions, it also brings its own energy and new ideas into the policy making process. Congress can promote policy innovation and set the larger political agenda. Often the policy innovations presidents "propose" are borrowed from ideas that have been incubating in Congress for years. Ultimately, it is not an either/or proposition; Congress and the President need one another.
A question from Evan Magnuson of Hammond, LA
Can you explain to me the need or the reason for the Republican's high level of combative rhetoric when they deal with Clinton? It seems to me that the more venomous the Republicans become, the more they become alienated from the center of America.
Why must the drum beat of resentment and contempt pound so intensely? Isn't there another way, and isn't this kind of behavior indeed self-defeating?
Can't reasonable men differ and still work together?
Bill Connelly responds:
American political history abounds with examples of harsh rhetoric and personal attacks. In the Lincoln/Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas effectively accused Abraham Lincoln of treason. Thomas Jefferson was called a "Jacobin" and voters were warned that his election in 1800 would leave "children writhing on the pike and halbert," which sounds even worse than robbing them of their school lunches. Harsh rhetoric is nothing new, and today's combative charges come from both parties. During the first session of the 104th Congress, House Democrat George Miller called Gingrich Republicans "fascists" in floor debate. At least he didn't use a cane to beat one of his colleagues on the House floor as did occur once in the 19th century.
The seemingly more personal quality of political rhetoric today may in part be due to the advent of television which personalizes politics and tends to focus on conflict. Unlike the highly responsible News Hour with Jim Lehrer, network news tends to highlight confrontation, not conciliation. Hot rhetoric sells. Politicians who want to gain media attention understand the need to engage in verbal fisticuffs. Still, we should remember that today's politicians are fighting with words not weapons, ballots not bullets.
Gingrich uses hot rhetoric in part to highlight the differences between the parties and their principles. Conservative Republicans believe it is important to provide a choice and not just an echo. In the years leading up to the 1994 GOP takeover of the House, Gingrich was labelled a "nihilist" and "congress-basher" who wanted to destroy the House. The Congress still stands, but House Republicans were successful in destroying the Democrats' domination of that institution for 40 years.
Incidentally, two weeks ago I spoke with a top White House official who noted that Gingrich and Clinton, as fellow baby-boomers and policy wonks, get along well personally.
A question from Ken Mash of East Stroudsburg, PA
To what degree have the Republicans lived up to their promise of fairer procedures in the House? Are floor rules less rigid than under the Democrats? Is the Rules Committee less "rigged"? I am also interested to know if the Republican Conference is run essentially the same as it ran under the Democrats.
Bill Connelly responds:
Following the November 1994 election, journalists asked whether the long-suffering "permanent minority" House Republicans were interested in "reform or revenge." The opening day of the 104th Congress effectively answered that question. Republicans instituted procedural reforms that have been little-noted generally, but well praised by careful Congress-watchers, including many political scientists. The "inside baseball" of reviving, for example, the minority's right to a "motion to recommit with instructions" may not gain a lot of public attention, but it does make a difference in Congress. Similarly, House Republicans reversed the House Democrats' tendency during the 1980s and 1990s to increasingly rely on "closed" rules for floor consideration of legislation.
On the other hand, the House GOP has not been as open as promised; they've learned that the majority party needs to keep the legislative "trains" moving. They've sought to reconcile promise and practice by using, for example, time-structured modified open rules which allow the minority party opportunities to amend legislation no the floor without granting the minority an unlimited right to abuse dilatory tactics. On balance the process today -- while not perfectly open -- is more fair and open than during much of the previous decade.
The legislative process in the House is also more party-dominated and less commitee-dominated than in the past. Some of the House GOP's changes have won praise from former Speaker Tom Foley. The party leadership and Republican Conference are stronger today than at any time in recent decades.
A question from Herb Luckert of South Bend, IN
A reasonable scenario for the November election would seem to be a continuation of a Republican majority in the Congress, with perhaps a smaller majority and Democratic occupancy of the White House. How would a continuation of the present state of the distribution of power effect the average citizen over the following 2 years or 4 years?
John Pitney responds:
Under this scenario, the White House and Congress would continue to check each other's initiatives, and the country would continue to lumber toward deficit reduction. So what? Consider an alternative scenario: a Democratic takeover of the House. (Recent polls suggest the possibility.) Because of the departure of the boll weevils, a Democratic majority in the 105th Congress would be much more liberal than that of the 103d. And seniority would put some especially strong liberals into key committee chairs: Obey at Appropriations, Conyers at Judiciary, Dellums at National Security, and Rangel at Ways and Means. Under such conditions, and with such intense liberal leadership, the House would push President Clinton to go easy on deficit reduction and revive the liberal social agenda.
So although the question's scenario would differ little from the current situation, it would differ greatly from the alternative.
A question from Jack Richman of New York, NY
President Reagan remains an icon to conservatives despite his repeated willingness to accept half a loaf if a whole was not in the offering. Many House Republicans would rather cling to their ideological purity than sign on to more timid steps, even if they are in the right direction. It seems as if Speaker Gingrich was late in realizing and many House freshman still do not realize that democracies tend to serve up change incrementally. While this may be frustrating, it is also a protection against grand mistakes, such as President Clinton's overreaching health care plan. Isn't it better to inch in the right direction than fail to act on those issues on which there is a substantial consensus?
John Pitney responds:
Speaker Gingrich likes to quote management scholar Peter Drucker, who makes a point that illuminates the House GOP mindset: "One has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable ... precisely because one always has to compromise in the end." By starting from a hard-line position, House Republicans won enactment of serious cuts in domestic discretionary spending and persuaded President Clinton to accept a seven-year balanced-budget schedule. If they had started from a more moderate position, they would not have accomplished nearly as much.
Of course, they did make some serious errors. In the fall of 1995, they lost control of the Medicare debate. Their message ("We're curbing growth in order to save the system") gave way to the Democratic message ("They're cutting Medicare to give tax breaks to the rich.") They also assumed that President Clinton would cave in; and when he stood fast, they had no backup plan.
A question from Julie Meany of New York, NY
It seems that the "bombthrowers" you talk about in your book are the ones now in leadership positions in the House. How has their proclivity to be combative rather than a "deal maker" affected the House and the relationship between the Congress and the President? The freshmen Republicans in the House seem to indicate that the bombthrower mentality may become the norm rather than the exception and that the moderates and consensus-builders maybe forced out. Do you see this trend as well?
John Pitney responds:
There is suspicion at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of the House GOP leaders are reluctant to bargain with the Clinton White House. By the same token, however, a number of White House staffers regard Republicans the way India's Brahmins used to look at the Untouchables.
In any event, not all the high-ranking House Republicans are bombthrowers or hard-line conservatives. As we note in our book, Gingrich made some conciliatory moves even when he was minority whip. Now that he is Speaker, institutional responsibilities have further tempered his style. As for ideology, Gingrich has long spoken of his roots as a Rockefeller Republican, and he enjoys good relationships with party moderates. Indeed, some conservatives think that his leadership is not right-wing enough. The conservative tabloid Human Events recently ran this headline: "Environmental Radicals May Have Friend in Speaker: Gingrich's Green Record Concerns Conservatives." There is little chance, however, that such grumbling will cost Gingrich his leadership of the House GOP. In the end, most House Republicans realize that moderates are part of the coalition and that the party's leadership has to accommodate them.
A question from Allen Rein of Louisville, KY
Several of the original bombthrowers/COS members have moved on to the Senate. Do you see the combative leadership styles taking root in the Senate? It seems that many of the "responsible partners in governing" in the upper house are retiring this year. What effect will this have on the direction of the Senate?
John Pitney responds:
The newer Senate Republicans do tend to be more confrontational than their seniors, but the institution has partially moderated their style. "Bombthrowing" is a response to tight procedural control by the majority party. The Senate operates under much looser procedures than the House, so individual members feel much less need to adopt guerrilla tactics. And the Republicans are in the majority instead of the minority, so they have to share in the duties of governance.
A number of the former COS members in the Senate are less concerned with confrontation per se than with the notion of party responsibility. When Mark Hatfield voted against the Balanced Budget Amendment, Connie Mack of Florida (who helped found COS when he was in the House) made a reasonable argument for stripping him of his Appropriations Committee chair: "Yes, people should vote their conscience, but Hatfield was in a leadership position and the Balanced Budget Amendment is a keystone of the Republican Party." Newer members are likely to agree with Mack, so over time, we are more likely to see more emphasis on party positions.
William C.Howard of Pulaski, NY
It is apparant that the Republicans still do not have the message that the electorate is completely discouraged with the career pol situation with special interest influence, very high pentions, and the seniority system that perpetuates the likes of Helms etc. Since the Republicans have taken on the same mantles that they ran against, their chances of continuing in the majority are from slim to none in my opinion. It looks like we are going to continue indefinitely with the President in one party and the congress sometimes split. Since it appears that no congress majority will want to get off the gravy train the country is going to be cursed with an increasingly selfish congress doing the bidding of special interests. Is there any way out of this trap?
Duane W.Wendle of Green Valley, AZ
Does a disagreement by a Republian make one a "bomb thrower"? Are the Democrats "present minority" with Bill Clinton's veto mind set,in a confrontational mode not irresponsible? Is it productive to call every Republican initiative, wrong-headed, mean-spirited, robbing the poor, helping the rich, killing the aged, starving the children, and on and on!
With and as a majority, the Republicans have advanced the "Contract with America," just as promised. With out the "vetos", we would be in a true reformation of government. Will the voters begin to listen to the policy statements of the Republican leadership or will they continue to be entral-led be Bill Clinton's which give many what the "want to hear" rather than what they need to hear and heed!
Penelope Williams of Cupertino, California
Is there any hope that our representatives will revert to governing the republic rather than legislating to "win?" I'm tired of watching public services crumble while Senators and Congressmen vote against positions they claim to support just so the "other side" won't "get credit."
Marianne Oprisko of College Station, TX
Did the Republicans get what they asked for? In the Contract with America there was a call for term limits. In 1994 incumbent Democrats were removed by the only legal term limit device available to the U.S. voter, the ballot box. One of the arguments against term limits was that experienced people were needed for the Congress to run smoothly. May be the voters are in a stepwise process of removing incumbents and the Republicans are next.
Jon Gray of Ringgold, Va
One change that congress made under the Republican majority, that even people like Bill Clinton stated approval of was the idea that congress should have to abide by the same watchdog rules that the rest of the country has had to deal with for years. Do you think that the changes brought about by this removal of immunity, might have changed, in some basic way, the way all majority parties will have to function in the future?
Frank Lazar of Jersey City, NJ
Looking in retrospect, it seemed to me that the Democrat's history as majority party (partiuclarly in more recent years) seemed quite as full of divisions and faction infighting particularly during and after the Reagan years, when it looked like the Dems were falling over each other to look more "conservative", doing anything to avoid the "liberal" label. (notwithstanding the traditional mainstays like Kennedy and Bradley of course.)
David Sullivan of Livingston, Montana
What is the definition, in your terms, of "playing politics". When does a politician NOT play politics? At a Kiwanis pancake breakfast one 4th of July a certain senator made an unscheduled stop at our picnic asking if he can help flip pancakes. Being in charge of this breakfast I thought that we could use the help. The only difference between him and and other flippers is that HE had a camara crew with him. Is that playing politics? Oh, yeah, I forgot, it was an election year.
Hubert L. Johnston of Fayetteville, NC
I sense that the Republican majority in Congress brings with it a growing realization that the government we have is not working as it has in the past, and as we expect it to work for us in the future...
Perhaps this is due to reasons not associated with the revivial of the Republicans in Congress, but the inability or lack of effort of the existing majority in Congress to accomplish their agenda makes one wonder what is going on.
The advent of another popular Third-Party political organization, and its invovlement in national elections further excerbates the difficulty of the majority in Congress to get things done. The trend in national politics obviously seems to be ineffectiveness of the Congress.
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