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Lessons, and the real record, from the Gingrich era.
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(It’s also worth noting that, in retrospect, that overall budget agreement was a rather good deal indeed, more of a credit than a discredit to Gingrich and Kasich. In a column I wrote four years after the deal, I lamented that “If Congress and former President Clinton had merely lived up to the budget accord they reached in 1997, the federal government would spend $2.231 trillion less during the next decade than it now is committed to doing.”)
The simple fact of the matter is that in the first two years, the Livingston-led Approps process succeeded in completely zeroing out exactly 300 federal programs. (I take pride in coming up with the catch phrase we used to explain how we would succeed at this against Clinton’s opposition: “You can’t veto a zero,” Livingston would say, repeatedly, with a smile.) And in the third year, it still held the line far better than most would have anticipated after Clinton’s large re-election victory.
The fourth year, in 1998 (for FY 1999), which is when Republicans really did finally capitulate badly on spending, the crystal-clear record is that Livingston fought against the capitulation. Context is everything, and the context was provided by a young woman named Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky’s story broke in late January of 1998, and it completely upended the apple cart. Gingrich, eyeing a run for the presidency, saw advantage in using Lewinsky to put the screws to Clinton. Kasich, also considering a presidential campaign, began pushing a big new tax cut. Kasich didn’t want to pass a budget resolution that didn’t include the tax cut. Gingrich thought that delaying a final budget agreement for the year would be a good politics because he figured Clinton would be in a weaker bargaining position as the Lewinsky investigation advanced. And Livingston, without a budget resolution to provide overall spending targets, was forced to keep delaying his Appropriations bills while waiting for a go-ahead from Gingrich and the budgeteers that never came.
The politics never played out as Gingrich envisioned. The public rallied around Clinton when Gingrich and Ken Starr released all the private details of the Lewinsky-Clinton encounters. Rather than having a strengthened budget hand, Gingrich found his position weakened. Gingrich doubled down, insisting on Draconian rules for the impeachment inquiry. Moderate Republicans balked. To keep them in line for the inquiry procedures, Gingrich capitulated almost entirely on spending across the board. The domestic discretionary accounts alone were allowed to jump radically, from $257.2 billion up to $293.53 billion. Outrageous.
And Livingston was livid. He felt the rug had been pulled out from under him. All that work to save money, negotiated away without his input.
I have good reason to remember it all quite well, even though by then I had moved back into journalism in Mobile, Alabama. My successor as press secretary, Mark Corallo, gave me a blow-by-blow account all year. Out in the hinterlands, it became clear to me that as the GOP looked like it had bloodlust for Clinton, it lost moderates and independents. As it gave away the store on spending, it completely dispirited, and in some cases infuriated, ordinary conservative voters. Gingrich was still predicting a 25-30 seat GOP pickup in House seats in the fall elections, and the consensus among prognosticators was for a 15-seat gain. But I spent all fall predicting GOP losses. In the end, I predicted exactly a five-seat loss — which, when that’s exactly what happened, earned me notice in Al Kamen’s Washington Post column as the only one he could find in print anywhere in the country to get it right.
I recount all this to explain why Corallo’s blow-by-blow remains so vivid to me. And part of that blow-by-blow was the contemporaneous account of Livingston blowing his top when Gingrich opened the spending floodgates.
This week I asked Corallo (who later served as communications director for the Ashcroft Justice Department and now is a top public affairs consultant) how he recalled that year’s developments.
“For most of 1997-98, the tension was about the Senate,” he said, of the Senate appropriators led by Alaskan Ted Stevens. “They were the ones who were earmark-happy. It was the senators doing the horse-trading; Bob was trying to hold it together as much as he could. Livingston was the one guy trying to keep the spending down.”
That’s why Livingston was so angry when Gingrich opened the spigots: While waiting for overall budget numbers, he had fought all year — against the Senate, the White House, and the increasing carping from House moderates — to keep major increases out of the appropriations bills that sat in draft form. And while Livingston trusted Gingrich’s political judgment about how the 1998 elections would play out (in other words, he discounted my gloom-and-doom from afar), he thought the policy implications were horrendous. A Gingrich loyalist, he nonetheless was enough infuriated by the spending dust-up that when it was followed with the election losses, he challenged Gingrich for speaker and quickly secured enough support to force the Georgian to step aside. (Livingston earlier that year had, with Gingrich’s tacit approval, begun setting up a future run for Speaker in the eventuality Gingrich stepped down to run for president.)
That’s the back story behind the Livingston-Gingrich break that year. (The two men now are again close friends and allies, by the way.) Livingston’s entire focus for four solid years had been to hold spending in check. The destruction of that achievement caused the (temporary) split with Gingrich. (This contemporaneous Washington Post story tells part of the tale, confirming my account above.) Meanwhile, in the Senate, Ted Stevens’ earmarkers had their way. Earmarks grew from 1,596 to 2,143 to 2,838 in Fiscal Years 1997-99. But it was only after Livingston left the House altogether that they really exploded: 4,326 in FY 2000 and 6,333 in FY 2001.
As for Livingston using earmarks as a tool of seduction: Fuhgeddabout it. Corallo tells the story: “When a Republican came asking for an earmark [earlier in the year] and hinted it could mean the difference between [eventual] support for Speaker or not, a couple of choice words flew from Bob’s mouth, though Bob was not the kind of guy to use lots of four-letter words. Bob was poking his finger almost in the guy’s chest, saying he didn’t make those kinds of deals. He never did that. He was furious and offended.”
ALL OF WHICH is a far-too-belabored defense of Bob Livingston’s excellent spending, or rather savings, record. But there are broader lessons, applicable today.
First, what was achieved before can be achieved again. Saving $100 billion from projected spending in 1995-1997 is the equivalent, in inflation-adjusted terms, of saving $140 billion from projected levels between now and 2013. As a percentage of the total domestic discretionary budget, which has metastasized since then, it’s the equivalent of saving a whopping $200 billion in FY 2011-2013. That’s a major chunk of change to save from the debt laid on future generations.
Second, it really does matter who takes the reins in key positions. Good legislating isn’t easy. It takes a combination of experience, skill, and tremendous willpower. Despite his flaws, Gingrich’s leadership was essential in the mid-1990s. So was that of Armey, Kasich, and the far-too-little-celebrated Bill Archer. (And, on non-spending fronts, of Boehner, Solomon, Henry Hyde, and others.) And Livingston, needless to say, was the guy at the forefront of where all the thousands of individual spending decisions were made. He was assisted by subcommittee chairmen who, for at least two years, bought into the entire agenda. (They included, by the way, Jerry Lewis of California, whom Kingston is challenging this year: Whatever Lewis’ career-long record, he did essential, yeoman’s work heading the crucial VA-HUD subcommittee where major cuts were made.)
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