Lessons, and the real record, from the Gingrich era.
Jack Kingston, conservative Republican congressman from Savannah for nine terms, fourth or fifth in seniority on the House Appropriations Committee, has announced his candidacy to leapfrog more senior, less fiscally conservative members and chair that committee for a newly formed Republican majority. The parallels to 1994 are striking. Then, a nine-term congressman from an old southern coastal city, fifth in seniority on the committee but more fiscally conservative than those senior to him, took over as Appropriations Committee chairman for a newly formed Republican majority. The job done by that other chairman, Bob Livingston of New Orleans (even the last seven letters of the name are the same then as now), was nothing less than astonishingly successful at reining in domestic discretionary spending. Yet to this day Livingston bizarrely comes under attack for fiscal incontinence — a charge so at odds with the record as to be unadulterated calumny.
Setting the record straight, again, serves three causes: first, because history merits accuracy; second, because conservatives have a terrible habit of failing to credit and honor their legislative lions, which has the effect of discouraging others from remaining stalwart; and third, most importantly, because there are key lessons from the 1990s experience to be learned today.
Although the facts I cite will be objectively indisputable, I claim no personal, interpretive objectivity on this matter: I was Livingston’s press secretary from the end of 1991 through 1996. In the intervening years, I’ve seen — many more times than I can count — conservatives denigrate the accomplishments of the Gingrich Congresses and especially of the spending restraint therein. The most recent shot came from my friend Ken Tomlinson (former editor of Reader’s Digest and former chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors), in a three-part exchange published at the Weekly Standard. I take time here to answer Tomlinson’s last entry into the lists at some length — but please don’t hesitate, after just a few paragraphs of getting a flavor of this, to skip ahead to the next section of this column as indicated by a bolded sentence, because that section will get to the meat of the lessons to apply today.
What most galled me about Tomlinson’s claims were these two sentences: “Newt Gingrich may have played a leading role in the growth of earmarking when as speaker he maneuvered then-representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana to the appropriations chairmanship. Together they helped establish the earmark as the modern congressman’s favorite tool of seduction.” This is just false. It makes it sound as if the selection of Livingston over four “old bulls” was engineered in order to set up an earmarking system, rather than to implement near-unprecedented savings; it makes it seem as if earmarking was a big deal then when it was only a sideshow; and it absolutely contradicts reality to say that Livingston ever used earmarks as “seduction” for big spending or anything else untoward.
As soon as the GOP took over Congress at the beginning of 1995, it faced the need for nearly $9 billion in “emergency supplemental” spending for some now-forgotten natural disasters and military needs (and, before the bill was done, for response to the Oklahoma City bombing). Never before had such emergency spending been “offset” by other cuts, but the Republicans were determined to set an example. Gingrich later wrote that even he was surprised, however, when Livingston, unasked, came to him and said that not only would he offset the emergency spending, but would “rescind” (save) nearly twice as much, eventually $16.4 billion, in already-passed, but not-yet-spent appropriations.
Later that year, driving the cuts by force of will against Bill Clinton’s opposition and the reluctance of the Senate, Livingston led his committee in cutting even more. He held the line again in 1996 (for Fiscal Year 1997). Here are the official numbers from the Office of Management and Budget: For FY 1994, domestic discretionary budget authority stood at $250.34 billion. Democrats approved $254.9 billion for FY 1995, but after the rescissions in early 1995, FY 1995 domestic discretionary budget authority had been cut to $238.48 billion. For FY 1996, the numbers came in at $235.77 billion. For FY 1997, they still remained at $244.97 billion. Do the math: Even if the Dems’ plans had been level funded for all three years at $254.9 billion, the combined savings over three years, from efforts led by Livingston, were $45.38 billion.
By a different measure of spending called “outlays” (as opposed to “budget authority), the savings amounted to $48.8 billion. (Technical adjustments, as I remember, brought it up to within a tiny rounding error of $50 billion, but I can’t prove it now.) Even better, compared to the rising baseline already adopted in earlier Democratic budgets (rather than a static $254.9 billion baseline), the savings in projected spending, as I absolutely remember it well (I no longer have these figures, but it was a big point of pride for us) reached just shy of $100 billion. Again, this is just in the first two years of the Livingston-led work (1995 rescissions and 1996 Approps during the first year, 1997 Approps during the second).
In terms of numbers of earmarks, meanwhile, Citizens Against Government Waste identified 1,318 in FY 1994, pre-Livingston; 1,439 the next year — again, passed by Democrats but now with some of Livingston’s rescissions; just 958 for Livingston’s first full year of FY 1996; and 1,596 for FY 1997. That’s hardly a massive shift in policy. As for using earmarks as tools of “seduction,” the only thing that comes close to that description were the times moderate Republicans might balk at voting for the spending cuts because of concerns there wouldn’t be room for ongoing programs they had worked for years on, such as local cancer centers. Livingston might let them keep those earmarks if they would agree to the broader cuts he was pushing.
If that’s seduction, fiscal conservatives should beg for more of it.
What, then, of Tomlinson’s citation of writings from the conservative stalwarts Robert Novak and Stephen Moore (both of whom I admire greatly), complaining of Livingston’s bona fides? The former was one of the extremely rare occasions where the great Novak was laughably obtuse; and the latter (along with other of Tomlinson’s criticisms) blames Livingston for things he demonstrably, and indisputably, had almost nothing to do with in 1997-98.
Novak made much of Livingston’s reverence for his late friend, the fiscally left-leaning Republican from Massachusetts, Silvio Conte. Novak missed the point. Livingston didn’t admire Conte’s ideology; he emulated Conte’s conviviality, work ethic, and at times his theatricality. Conte had a good-natured respect for the institution; he took Livingston under his wing even though Livingston was more conservative than he; and he helped Livingston understand how the process worked. And even when Conte was dying of cancer, he came down to Louisiana for a big party Livingston threw for his supporters in 1990 — a politician throwing a party without raising funds from it — just to have a chance to tell Livingston’s home folks what a great asset to Congress Livingston was and, more importantly, what a true friend. I was there that night, when I was a reporter in New Orleans; Conte’s little speech moved me nearly to tears.
So much for there being anything wrong with Livingston prominently displaying Conte’s portrait in the chairman’s office.
As for Stephen Moore’s complaints in his January, 1998 letter to Livingston, he (and Tomlinson) ignored two key events that happened in July of 1997. First, Livingston and New York’s Gerald Solomon discovered, blew the whistle on, and broke up a coup attempt against Gingrich that involved, to one extent or another, leadership team members Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and Bill Paxon. The upshot was that conservatives angry about a big-spending transportation authorization and about Gingrichian high-handedness were completely marginalized from key budgetary negotiations. Just weeks later, Gingrich and Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich finalized the grand deal with the White House that finally guaranteed — in large part as a result of Livingston’s work, along with that of Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer — the first balanced budget in more than three decades. Though Livingston’s two years as chairman helped mightily to lay the groundwork, Livingston himself had no part in negotiating that deal — a deal whose overall balanced budget was praised as a “heroic accomplishment” in the same Stephen Moore letter but, as the Heritage Foundation pointed out, did open the gates a little bit in terms of domestic appropriations. Again, these negotiations were the work of Kasich and Gingrich and the Senate’s Trent Lott, not Livingston — yet Moore for some reason blamed Livingston for the results. How strange.
Even so, for Fiscal Year 1998, domestic discretionary budget authority still grew to just $257.2 billion — only $2.3 billion more than had been the Democrats’ original 1995 level, which still remained $14 billion less in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Meanwhile, to blame Livingston for a hike in public broadcasting spending, after all the abuse he (and I) took for working to cut it even a little in 1995 (which we did), is absurd. Moderate Republicans flat-out wouldn’t go along at the time, and the White House insisted on the increase as part of the budget deal that Gingrich-Lott-Kasich negotiated.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online