Class Consciousness

By Henderson, Rick | Reason, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Class Consciousness


Henderson, Rick, Reason


The House Republican freshmen: always aggressive, sometimes obnoxious, hardly monolithic

Among the many terms that might describe freshman Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.), "grandmotherly" wouldn't top the list. The steely-eyed, 45-year-old former tax consultant may be a grandmother, but she's anything but demure as she lectures a group of conservative activists on her political reform agenda. "We need to control special interests before we can balance this budget," she says of her proposal. "After the '96 election, there will be no more gifts, no more contributions from corporations, no more from unions."

Not everyone in the room is excited by Smith's objectives. "That woman is doing the work of the devil," says a prominent GOP strategist after the meeting. "How on earth does she think a gift ban would roll back the federal government?" asks another observer. But with the blessing of Majority Leader Dick Armey, Smith will see her lobbying and gift reforms come up for a vote on November 16, after this story goes to press. By allowing a vote on Smith's agenda, Armey abandoned Majority Whip Tom DeLay, perhaps his closest friend in Congress. DeLay opposes the measure in part because an absolute ban on trips offered legislators by businesses and nonprofits might prevent him from promoting and attending the charity golf tournament he sponsors each year in his native Texas.

Frequently described as feisty, rambunctious, and rowdy, the House Republican freshmen have alternately boosted and antagonized congressional leaders. Elected as "outsiders," the class has elevated reforming the political process above all other issues, an obsession that occasionally contradicts their determination to cut back the size of the federal government. And despite their much-ballyhooed class solidarity, individual freshmen have shown they can act independently when they feel duty calls.

In 1994, the GOP picked up 52 seats and replaced 21 additional Republican incumbents. Party leaders Newt Gingrich and Armey (along with pollster Frank Luntz) galvanized the class behind the Contract With America, which they sold as a blueprint for reforming and rolling back the federal government. But the Contract was about more than congressional accountability. Luntz consciously designed it to lure back to the GOP the people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992. It accomplished that marvelously well: While half of the self-described Perot voters chose Republicans in 1992 congressional races, two-thirds voted Republican in 1994.

The Contract's unifying message and the Perotistas' zeal for cleaning up Congress have provided opportunities and challenges for the new Republican leaders. Yet the Contract's reformist message was really nothing new. Four years earlier, another group of GOP freshmen came to Washington, vowing to shake up the establishment. While their numbers were smaller, and their minority status prevented them from directly influencing policy, the Gang of Seven's agenda and tactics set the stage for the class of '94.

The 1990 elections came on the heels of the Bush administration's budget cave-in and allegations about problems inside the House bank and post office. Republicans lost a handful of seats, but seven new GOP members - John Boehner (Ohio), John Doolittle (Calif.), Scott Klug (Wis.), Jim Nussle (Iowa), Frank Riggs (Calif.), Rick Santorum (Pa.), and Charlie Taylor (N.C.) - worked together to embarrass Democratic leaders who refused to disclose the names of members who had overdrawn their House bank accounts and the number and amounts of those overdrafts. By relentlessly staging events for the press (Nussle once entered the House wearing a paper bag on his head) and using one-minute speeches on C-SPAN, the Gang of Seven shamed the Democrats into full disclosure.

Once they accomplished their short-term objective, the gang didn't disappear. In 1992, for instance, Boehner led the drive to complete ratification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from raising members' pay during its current term. …

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