By Quin Hillyer on 11.24.10 @ 6:08AM
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.
(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.)
Anyway, if new Speaker John Boehner intends to really save some money against a president far more liberal than Bill Clinton was, and against not a moderate Republican Senate majority but a liberal Democratic one, he’ll need to engineer as big a shake-up on Appropriations this year as Gingrich did back then. Kingston’s record indicates he has the right philosophy; let’s hope he also has the skill and will.
Third, it helps to keep in perspective the art of the possible. It is counterproductive to carp over every small concession to political realities. The conniption fits some critics had over the balanced budget deal reached in 1997 look silly in retrospect, because that deal now looks like fiscal conservative nirvana. The key, after getting as good as you can get, is to come right back for more (or less, as the case may be) almost as soon as the ink is dry. That’s what Clinton did from the other side in the mid-90s: He fought and fought and fought the GOP’s discipline, finally gave in — and then came back the very next year and fought and fought and fought for more spending again. Conservatives this time can and should do the opposite: Fight for as much discipline as possible — and then after they can win no more concessions this year, they should come back in the next year with an even stronger public case and a rededicated strength of will.
Fourth, stay on an even keel. Gingrich himself, to his credit, now acknowledges that he was too mercurial and too high-profile in the 1990s, even as he led Congress to major accomplishments. Boehner’s low-key steadiness may be a better fit for the job this time around. Steadiness also can ward off a lot of the infighting that broke out (and caused a mid-term near coup) during the Gingrich era. The real story of the collapse of the great Gingrich Congress — and it was, for nearly three years, great — was that the House caucus did survive the “government shutdown” at the end of 1995, but never did overcome the fallout from the coup attempt in 1997. Boehner will need to pay more heed to managing personalities and egos than Gingrich did. And all the new congressmen, including Tea Party conservatives, need to cut him slack on little things even while holding his feet to the fire on major principles. Political cannibalism is, of course, eventually self-destructive.
They all face a long-term battle; not every short-term dispute is a crisis. And sometimes tactical stalemates can lead to strategic gains.
As for the Appropriations battle, I’ve seen Jack Kingston work, close up, when he was still just a congressional fledgling. He’s solid. If he’s the new chairman, conservatives will have a champion just like they had in Livingston. It’ll help him remain a champion if conservatives give him some of the thanks and credit Livingston retroactively was denied.
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