MAY 22, 1995
In the last four months, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has compared himself to a variety of Capitol Hill forebears: Nicholas Longworth, House speaker during the 1920s; Henry Clay; and the leaders of the Radical Republicans who dominated Congress after the Civil War. His press secretary, Tony Blankley, has likened him to Churchill, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, even Gandhi. (“I knew there would be snickering,” Blankley says.) Beneath the hyperbole, however, is an undeniable fact: undeniable by conservatives and liberals alike. The surprise of the 104th Congress is how effective an executive Newt Gingrich has turned out to be.
This was by no means a foregone conclusion. Quite the opposite. Gingrich made his name as a tireless partisan, a clever packager of conservative themes, a shrewd campaign tactician, a political maverick. But look at what Gingrich has done as House speaker. He has held together on vote after vote the entire Republican coalition, from gay moderate Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin to gay-bashing conservative Bob Dornan of California. He has compromised when necessary—to get the balanced budget amendment and welfare reform through the House, for instance—without sacrificing principle (or much substance either). And he has held firm when possible, the tax cut being the best example. Gingrich also is a deft delegator, letting Majority Leader Dick Armey manage the House while reserving big decisions for himself and always keeping his eye on the big picture. Not bad for a bomb-thrower.
How did Gingrich accomplish so much? By meticulous time management and hard work. Two examples: with control of the House assured on election night, Gingrich held planning sessions with advisers from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.; over Easter, with the House in a three-week recess, he devoted his time to finishing his book, aided by ghostwriter William Tucker. Gingrich has also learned to think long-term. He made two decisions in early 1994 that facilitated his ascendancy in 1995. The first was to hatch a new test for House Republicans. If they intended to be serious players in the GOP leadership, such as committee chairs, they’d better show it by raising money for Republican challengers. Those who did—activists and team players—iced their positions in the new Gingrich hierarchy. The second decision was the creation of the Contract with America. The ideas weren’t new. But putting them in a package and running on it was. Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour insists that the party out of power in Washington had never before run on a detailed, positive agenda. And while others saw the contract as a set of useful campaign talking points, Gingrich envisioned it, to much ridicule, as the governing document it became. When Congress convened, “there was only one governing entity out there with a plan, House Republicans,” says Barry Jackson, executive director of the House GOP Conference. The White House offered nothing. Nor did Senate Republicans. Gingrich’s contract “filled the vacuum,“ adds Jackson. Now, senators appear on the House floor to watch votes on major issues. And Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who won a Senate seat last year after two terms in the House, muses openly about missing out on the action. Serving in the Senate, he grouses, is like watching paint dry.
Last summer, the Gingrich camp made a halfhearted attempt to get Senate Republicans to endorse the contract. There were negotiations with Senators Phil Gramm of Texas and Trent Lott of Mississippi. The negotiations came to nothing, since many senators regarded a joint venture with House members as political slumming. But Gingrich didn’t really care if senators signed on. He figured they’d be slow out of the chute in 1995 and agenda-less, while House Republicans would move swiftly. Once they acted on the contract, it would automatically be the Senate’s job to tackle it. Gingrich guessed right. Gramm, then chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm, got Senate challengers last fall to endorse seven vague principles, but these attracted little notice. “I don’t remember what they were,” says Blankley dismissively. However, when Gramm wanted to announce them before the contract was signed on the Capitol grounds in September, Gingrich’s sidekick Armey convinced him to hold off. Following the election, Gramm declared the contract to be the Senate agenda.
The first real test of Gingrich’s leadership came fast on the heels of the election. This was picking committee chairs. Gingrich alone chose, ignoring seniority.His requirement that prospective leaders prove their activism had already produced results. In June, he handed out pledge cards for senior Republicans to sign. The pledges were to raise money for Republican challengers. Those who didn’t return signed cards got a nagging phone call from Gingrich. “If you weren’t on board, it was uncool,” says Ed Gillespie, an Armey aide. In 1992, only a dozen Republican incumbents steered money to challengers. In 1994, 140 gave. In special elections early in 1994, Republican House members ponied up $60,000 each for Frank Lucas in Oklahoma and Ron Lewis in Kentucky.Both won formerly Democratic seats. Representatives Tom Bliley of Virginia and Bill Archer of Texas raised more than $500,000 apiece for GOP challengers in the general election. To Gingrich’s surprise, Representative Pat Roberts of Kansas got active, soliciting funds for Lucas from agriculture PACs. Gingrich set minimum fund-raising levels. Ranking Republicans had to tithe $7,500 in 1993 and another $7,500 in 1994 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, freshmen $1,000 each year. The campaign committee is run by Representative Bill Paxon of New York, a Gingrich acolyte.
The surprising thing was how many Republicans went along with Gingrich, then House GOP whip and heir apparent to Bob Michel as leader. (The campaign for leader by Representative Gerald Solomon of New York had collapsed after four days.) Representative Carlos Moorhead of California didn’t. He was the ranking Republican on two committees, but not a strong force. Gingrich moved Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois ahead of him on judiciary and Bliley on energy and commerce, both activists and ideological allies of Gingrich. Archer was safe as ways and means chairman, and Roberts earned the right to head the Agriculture Committee. Gingrich let four moderates move up to chairmanships. Why? He needs moderate votes and was eager to reward activists, even if they didn’t always vote a conservative line. Representative Bill Clinger of Pennsylvania, who’d investigated Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Tyson Foods and travelgate, became chairman of the Government Operations Committee. “He wasn’t voting with us,” says a Gingrich aide, “but he was being an aggressive ranking Republican.” So was Solomon, a Gingrich critic, at the Rules Committee. Gingrich calculated that the benefits from making him chairman exceeded the costs.
The most sensitive posts, given Gingrich’s quest for a balanced budget, are budget and appropriations chairmen. In 1993, Representative Bill Gradison of Ohio sought a waiver to serve another four years as ranking Republican on budget. Gingrich, thinking ahead, nixed it. Figuring Republicans might capture the House in 1994, he wanted to pave the way for Representative John Kasich of Ohio, a Gingrich clone, to become chairman. Some conservatives groused about Kasich, but Gingrich didn’t waver. At appropriations, the ranking Republican, Representative John Myers of Indiana, was easy prey, unpopular with his GOP colleagues and no Newtoid. Gingrich felt bad about bouncing Moorhead, but relished humiliating Myers. He jumped Representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana over Myers and two others as part of a deal. Livingston abandoned his race for caucus chairman, leaving that for Representative John Boehner of Ohio and taking the appropriations chairmanship. This was win-win for Gingrich: a protege as caucus chief, a zealous budget-cutter at appropriations. More important, there was scarcely a peep of protest over Gingrich’s appointments. His dominance as speaker was established. And “he had committee chairmen ready to fulfill the revolution,“ argues Gingrich pollster Frank Luntz. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bob Dole didn’t. Gingrich sneered at the Senate recently in a speech to the House GOP Conference. “They’re chairmen by accident over there,” he said, referring to seniority. The conference erupted in applause.
To bolster Republican strength, Gingrich deputized a special posse of lobbyists. He and other Republicans had marveled for years at the ability of Democrats to draw support for their entire agenda from narrow constituency groups. “They’d get the AFL-CIO to back gay rights,” says a GOP strategist. Gingrich recruited a dozen groups to back the full contract in exchange for special access. So every Thursday morning, Boehner presides over a meeting with officials of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Christian Coalition, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, Americans for Tax Reform, the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Homebuilders, among others. Lobbying assignments are handed out. “All are muscle groups which can instantly mobilize members,” says a Republican official. The private lobbyists were notably successful in pressuring Democrats to vote for GOP bills.
But strategy and organization aren’t everything. Gingrich had to prove himself in legislative battle. Though he says he has profited from studying combat generals, Gingrich has styled his speakership after Democrat Sam Rayburn, who was speaker between 1940 and 1961. He has taken over the Board of Education Room in the Capitol where Rayburn conferred daily with advisers. Gingrich has his own set of informal advisers, including several GOP freshmen.He uses the same party ratios for committee membership as Rayburn did. And though his authority is unchallenged, he gives others in the leadership a long leash, again like Rayburn. He saves himself for the big moments.
Gingrich let Armey choreograph the first day, when Republicans needed to demonstrate, with the national media watching, that they could run the House crisply. (In fact, Armey plotted out the entire ninety-three days of the contract.) Armey held two practice sessions on the House floor. Gingrich pal Bob Walker of Pennsylvania emulated Democratic Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, peppering GOP members with parliamentary inquiries and requests for unanimous consent. Republicans also practiced voting “yes” for tabling motions after voting “no” on them for forty years. The actual day—Republicans call it “the longest day”—went according to the minute-by-minute script. Reforms of Congress passed overwhelmingly and Gingrich’s own speech got high marks.
The Gingrich method is to allow others to handle everything until there’s an impediment. Then he intervenes, not by arm-twisting but by inviting recalcitrants to his office and, as Paxon puts it, “taking them to the vision level.” On the day of the House vote on the balanced budget amendment, twenty Republican freshmen came to see Gingrich, claiming they wouldn’t back an amendment that didn’t require a three-fifths majority to raise taxes. It took Gingrich ten minutes to turn them around. His message was simple. We’re winning the war. We’ve made promises. If we keep them, we win politically and the country comes out ahead. Don’t jeopardize everything. Off the cuff, Gingrich threw them a bone, promising a separate vote on a three-fifths amendment on April 15, 1996. When the freshmen left, Gingrich was confident enough not to take a head count. All but two voted his way.
Gingrich gave the same treatment to leaders of the National Rifle Association, who told him in January they wanted a quick vote on lifting the assault weapons ban. “Let’s step back,” Gingrich said. He spelled out the vision of a new majority of which the NRA was an honored constituent. He contended that Republicans needed to build credibility before taking up their issue. They relented. But Gingrich’s talk of the “grand scheme” doesn’t always work. During March and into April, he failed to satisfy scores of House Republicans who wanted the tax cut scaled back. He delayed a vote for a week in hopes the conflict would resolve itself. It didn’t, forcing Gingrich to decide. On this one, he measured intensity. Backers of the full tax cut, especially pro-family groups, were more passionate than critics. The tax bill passed easily, losing only nine of 230 GOP votes.
Gingrich’s decisions will soon get tougher, and he won’t be able to rely on gentle persuasion. To hold Republicans in line on sensitive spending cuts—in Medicare, for example—he’ll have to twist arms. He spent three days in early May in Leesburg, Virginia, rousing Republicans to attack the budget. Gingrich is anxious, but not terribly. He seems to believe that Medicare can somehow be depoliticized, Social Security left untouched and the budget balanced in seven years. Or that he has the political skill and dominance to square these circles. And given the political dexterity he displayed in the first 100 days, the burden of doubt probably lies with his critics.
One thing Gingrich doesn’t fear is the White House. And this, perhaps, is the ultimate trademark of Gingrich, the hyper-organized executive. In fact, he and Republican members of Congress largely ignore the administration. Barry Jackson, the influential GOP staffer, has never met the chief White House lobbyist, Patrick Griffin, and doesn’t care to. In February, the administration sent five officials—Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Defense Secretary William Perry, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—to brief House Republicans before a defense vote. Only one Republican showed up (Gingrich hadn’t instructed them to). “It was kind of embarrassing,” says a Gingrich aide sheepishly. Gingrich himself was scheduled to introduce the officials at the briefing. He never showed up either.
This article appeared in the May 22, 1995 issue of the magazine.