National Democrats this year are bombarding wavering voters with overblown horror stories about how a Republican Congress will screw up in the same way the previous Republican Congresses did during the G.W. Bush administration. The better comparison would be with what the first Republican Congress in 40 years did in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Set aside some Gingrichian histrionics that made Republicans unpopular on style points: The record shows that a Republican Congress coming in fresh from the wilderness can be extremely productive in passing broadly popular, effective policies.
What the Gingrich Congress did in those first three years — against calumny from most Democratic colleagues, fierce opposition combined with prevarications from the Clinton White House, and an extraordinarily hostile establishment media — was nothing short of remarkable. On the substance of domestic policy, it may have been the greatest congressional performance ever. Its performance provides a template for how to do things right, while providing Republican Leader John Boehner (a key figure in 1994 as well) some lessons about the sorts of actions to avoid — lessons that a duly chastened but energetic Republican Conference can make great use of in 2011 and 2012.
The first thing Gingrich’s House did was pass serious ethics reforms. Unlike the Pelosi Democrats, the Gingrich Congress made those reforms stick for more than four years. The GOP banned proxy voting in committee and opened committee meetings to the public. It saved taxpayer money by cutting committee staff by nearly a third. It allowed more “open rules” for fair amendment attempts than had been allowed for ages. It stopped exempting Congress from laws that apply to the rest of the country. It severely limited earmarks. It term-limited committee chairmen. And it began putting all legislation online so the public could read it.
The next thing it did was to carefully but significantly cut domestic discretionary spending. In just two years it cut what was then an astonishing $50 billion from already-established appropriation levels. These were actual savings, not savings from some mythical but ever-rising baseline. Compared to that baseline set by the Democrats in 1994, the GOP savings weren’t just $50 billion in Fiscal Years 1995 (via rescissions), 1996 and 1997 combined, but right at $100 billion. This was when domestic discretionary spending was in the $250 billion range, meaning that $50 billion in three fiscal years was the equivalent of about $140 billion of three-year savings from today’s $700 billion annual domestic spendathons.
Yet despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, nothing bad happened. Children didn’t starve in the streets. Little old ladies didn’t freeze to death in gutters. Crime didn’t spike. Kidney patients didn’t lose dialysis machines. In fact, so carefully did House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston and company make the cuts that almost nobody minded the de-funding of hundreds of government programs. Finally, rather than causing the economy to tank from the withdrawal of so much government spending, the Appropriations cuts inspired investor confidence, which in turn catalyzed one of the greatest economic booms in American history.
Meanwhile, the GOP stopped Bill Clinton’s cannibalization of the armed forces and rescued missile defense from the scrap heap. If the armed forces weren’t as fully funded as they should have been (due to Clinton veto threats), they were far better funded than they would have been if the Gingrich team hadn’t taken over. The fruits of that success were evident in 2001-02’s the amazing “shock and awe” campaign that overwhelmed the Taliban in Afghanistan and terminated Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror in Iraq.
Back to domestic policy: In 1996, the GOP Congress was undeterred by not one but two Clinton vetoes of welfare reform. With undaunted leadership by Clay Shaw and Bill Archer in the House and Rick Santorum in the Senate — along with some sage political advice from Dick Morris to Bill Clinton — Republicans finally forced Clinton to sign what is almost certainly the single most successful big reform of a domestic government program since at least World War II. Millions left welfare and went to work. The poverty level dropped significantly. And the government saved tens of billions of dollars.
Archer also led the way for some significant tax cuts, including a $500-per-child tax credit. Budget Chairman John Kasich, for his part, kept all the numbers straight and provided an overall budgetary framework — combined with a tremendous, can-do, bounce-off-walls energy that sometimes drove colleagues to distraction but left no doubt that, yes, the federal government actually could and, miracle of miracles, actually would balance its books. And, for the first time in some three decades, it did indeed balance the federal budget — no thanks to Clinton, who fought against Republicans, especially rhetorically, every step of the way.
Those seminal successes, and many others, show the good things a GOP Congress can accomplish when it hasn’t become jaded and arrogant. In some ways, a Republican House at least is positioned to be more politically successful than the Gingrich Congress was. Part of this better positioning involves personality. Brilliant as Gingrich was, his style was to ratchet up the heat and create conflict. John Boehner is smoother and less likely to turn off the political middle. In 1995 the Majority Leader was Dick Armey, bright but somewhat dyspeptic. The next Majority Leader is likely to be Eric Cantor, both bright and polished. We don’t know who the Whip will be, but it almost certainly won’t be someone with the sharp elbows of Tom DeLay. And so on. The rising stars in the House — Mike Pence (if he doesn’t run for president), Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, perhaps Jo Bonner from his Ethics Committee perch, and others — are almost all eminently likable. None is likely to look like his opposition to President Obama springs from an ugly personal bloodlust, which is how the media portrayed the attitude of Gingrich and company in 1995.
In sum, a new GOP Congress could offer many of the benefits of the 1995 legislature, without the drawbacks. Moreover, it has a plan for action, known as the Pledge to America, that is both principled and popular with a broad swath of the citizenry. Repeal and replace Obamacare. Freeze federal hiring (except for national security). Jettison Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Roll back outrageous red tape. Repeal the horrendous new paperwork mandate on small businesses. Block tax hikes. Allow bills to be read and analyzed before being voted on. Protect the border. And, in every way, demand adherence to the Constitution that limits the power of the federal Leviathan.
These are all things with which most Americans agree. They are actions Americans would support. And they follow principles rooted in what’s best in the American tradition.
If Democrats warn against going “back to the future,” Republicans should say “bring it on.” Just as in the Michael J. Fox movie, a trip back, with a few tweaks, can actually change the future for the better. A future as good as 1995 turned out to be — combined with the enlightening lessons of the intervening 15 years, and the enthusiasm of an energized populace — could be a future well worth living with the practical wisdom of a Franklin and the optimism of a Reagan. It is a future most Americans would surely embrace.