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Chapter 1: REVOLUTION
The 104th Congress, of 1995–96, was the most important Congress of the twentieth century. Quite possibly it was the most important Congress in American history.
Most Americans don’t think much about Congress. And it’s not just the general public. Historians love to rank presidents, but they never rank Congresses. Why? Because Congress typically doesn’t matter. That is, Congress typically doesn’t matter as much as the president with whom it interacts—the leader who can set the nation’s agenda even if he can’t pass the laws. Whereas the president is an individual with a clear vision and often with the ability to rally Americans behind that vision, Congress is a hulking, plodding legislative body. Congress is not generally responsible for new, provocative ideas; rather, it is where such ideas go to be watered down by endless compromises and attached to other costly programs by politicians eager to impress their constituents.
That is how it normally works, anyway. Even when Congress has had big clashes with presidents, it has almost always been when Congress has resisted bold new ideas or resented efforts to uproot or challenge protected industries or orthodoxies. In 1832, Congress resisted Andrew Jackson’s effort to kill the National Bank. In 1903, Congress resisted Theodore Roosevelt’s attempts to tame the trusts. In 1919, Congress dealt a crushing blow to Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. A series of Congresses used political intimidation to prevent Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy from proposingcivil rights legislation.
But the Congress sworn in in January 1995 was anything but typical. In fact, this new Congress was hailed as bringing a “revolution” to American politics. Part of it, of course, was that for the first time in four decades the Republicans had taken control of Congress. And in truth, the Democrats’ dominion over the House of Representatives extended back much further than to 1954, the election in which the Democrats regained the numerical advantage in the House they had lost in 1952. Democrats had really seized the levers of government in 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression, and spent more than six decades consolidating that power—through the New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, the civil rights era, the Great Society, and the large, liberal, and activist Watergate class of 1974 that redefined Democratic congressional power for the next twenty years. The Democratic Party controlled the House of Representatives for sixty of the sixty-four years between 1930 and 1994, and the Senate for fifty-four of those sixty-four years. The Republican Congress elected in 1952, on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s coattails, was, in essence, an accidental majority—the Democrats regained power in the next election. The same could be said for the Republican majority that was elected in 1946: Republicans offered no coherent political alternative to President Truman’s efforts to expand the New Deal, which allowed Truman to run for reelection in 1948 against the “Do Nothing” Republican Congress. Divorced from an agenda and a political plan to consolidate gains, the Republican majority disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. (So uncertain of their majority status were House Republicans in 1946 and 1952 that GOP leaders kept the offices they held while in the minority, ceding the larger and more ornately decorated real estate to their Democratic betters.)
Yet something more was happening in the 1994 election. This time the Republicans would not quickly cede the ground they had taken, as they had after 1946 and 1952. Here was a different breed of Republican. The Republicans of the 104th Congress were first and foremost about ideas. Ideas drove the politics. Ideas drove the reforms. Ideas drove the agenda. Ideas drove President Clinton away from the leftist congressional barons who had hijacked the centrist agenda he campaigned on in 1992 and turned it (at times with far too much Clintonian complicity) into an unrecognizable hash of tax increases, pork-barrel stimulus spending, nationalized health care, costly and timid welfare reform, drastic defense cuts, and no middle-class tax cut—for even while Clinton publicly demonized the new Republican majority for his short-term political benefit, he was adapting to the new center-right political terrain defined by the 1994 election, and defined by the Republicans’ ideas. Ultimately, the Republicans’ ideas profoundly reshaped our nation—and continue to shape it to this day.
These ideas were codified in the Contract with America, which Republicans publicly unveiled at a September 1994 event on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. Many Americans remember the ceremony on the Capitol steps, as 337 Republicans who either were in the House already or were campaigning to win seats gathered to sign the Contract. But the Contract was not designed just for that one-day press event. It offered a detailed, comprehensive agenda touching everything from internal congressional reform to national defense, welfare to economic growth, term limits to balancing the budget, crime control to tort reform.
The Contract started with a unified set of principles for which these 337 Republicans stood: individual liberty, economic opportunity, limited government, personal responsibility, and security at home and abroad. From these principles arose a two-part agenda: The first part laid out eight “major reforms” that were “aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government.” These reforms applied to the management of Congress; for instance, the Republicans called for changing the rules in Congress so lawmakers had to live under all major federal regulations, cutting the number of House committees and the size of committee staffs, and requiring a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase. The second part, a ten-point legislative agenda, was even more important. As this book will reveal, it was the result of intense intraparty debate, and the culmination of years of work on the part of numerous Republicans both inside and outside of Congress. And to show their commitment to the agenda, the Republicans vowed that if they took the majority, they would vote on all ten planks of the Contract within the first hundred days of taking power. “If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.”
In the ten planks, the Republicans called for:
1.A balanced-budget amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to Congress
2.A strong anti-crime bill that expanded the death penalty and required longer jail sentences for felons
3.A “personal responsibility act” that would reform welfare by forcing able-bodied recipients off public assistance after two years and reduce welfare spending
4.A “family reinforcement act” that would, among other things, provide tax incentives for adoption and establish an elderly dependent-care tax credit
5.A $500-per-child tax credit, a reduction of taxes on married couples, and the creation of tax-free savings accounts available to help families cover the cost of college tuition, first-time home purchases, or medical expenses
6.A strong national security defense bill that would protect defense spending from further cuts, eliminate any possible United Nations command of U.S. troops, and call for the swift development and deployment of a national ballistic missile defense system
7.Allowing seniors to earn more without losing Social Security benefits
8.Eliminating federal unfunded mandates (that is, federal laws that require states or communities to take particular actions but do not provide the funds necessary for the actions) and passing other reforms to create new jobs and increase wages, such as reducing the capital gains tax and providing incentives for small businesses
9.Reducing damages awarded in civil cases and making other “commonsense legal reforms”
10.Term limits on senators and congressman
The legislative language behind each and every plank of the Contract with America was already written before the Contract was unveiled—pages and pages of legislation, in fact. This may sound like a minor matter, but actually it is the most significant part of the story. The Contract was much more than an easy-to-read political manifesto. To be sure, the ten planks were reduced for public consumption to catchy, focus-group-tested phrases, much as other campaign manifestos are constructed. But Contract task forces produced a complete bill for each plank, one that voters could scrutinize before the election. It was an arduous process persuading lawmakers who had never been in the majority to stop thinking about issues from the perspective of Republicans playing off Democratic proposals and start thinking of bills they wanted to become law. Operating as the minority party, Republicans created a political agenda they believed would give them real legislative power. By painstakingly turning “issues” into legislative documents, the Republican authors of the Contract made it impossible for their agenda to disappear after Election Day 1994, as so many election-year manifestos do. With tax cuts, welfare reform, defense spending, ballistic missile defense, prison and crime reforms, and the line-item veto, Republicans changed the country through the power of ideas and the unshakable desire to implement them. Unlike any other political document in American history, the Contract lived a more important life after the last ballot was counted than it did before the first vote was cast.
Two other Congresses of the twentieth century can claim the mantle “historic”—the first New Deal Congress, which set Franklin Roosevelt’s liberal agenda in legislative stone, and Lyndon Johnson’s first Congress, which enacted most of the Great Society programs. But both of those Congresses followed the political lead of powerful presidents who had won landslide elections. The GOP Congress of 1995, in contrast, worked in defiance of an opposition president in his first term in office and only two years removed from unseating a Republican incumbent. No Congress in American history working from such a small toehold of power gave rise to a wider array of ideas or changed the country, its economy, its defenses, its culture, or its political processes more profoundly than the 104th Congress. Not all at once. But gradually, at times almost imperceptibly, Congress changed America from top to bottom. And it did so through the strength, grit, and idealism of a kind of conservative Republican America had never known before and in many ways is still getting used to.
The America we live in now is a reflection in more ways of the 104th Congress than it is of the presidencies of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Indeed, that Congress radically altered the political course of Clinton’s presidency and laid the intellectual and political foundation for Bush’s. The presidents might have signed the laws, but the 104th Congress either proposed those laws directly or set in motion the process by which they became law. Many policies now part of the fabric of American life drew their intellectual inspiration and political impetus from the leaders and members of that first GOP majority elected in 1994.
This book is not about tactics but about trajectories. It seeks to measure not only what Republicans accomplished and failed to accomplish, but also something much more difficult but just as important—to wit, what happened that otherwise would not have happened had Republicans not been in charge.
It is not an idle question. In fact, it lies at the heart of any serious evaluation of what Republican rule in Congress has meant to the nation.
From the Hardcover edition.