The unexpected shadow of 1994, 25 years later
This coming November marks 25 years since the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. A quarter-century after Newt Gingrich led the GOP to take back control of the House of Representatives—after four decades of Democratic control—Washington is still feeling its reverberations. Say what you will about whether Democrats deserved to lose that election, what’s undeniable is that the result changed the way Congress works in ways few anticipated. At a time of nearly unprecedented paralysis in Washington, a look back may actually point the way forward.
Many have forgotten what political life was like in the House before 1994. Through the years when the Democratic majority seemed immovable, House Republicans presumed that their only real hope of affecting the policy making process was to play nice—to trade (what was often just the veneer of) bipartisanship for the favor of Democrats slipping a GOP idea into a bill. Democrats on the other hand had no real reason to deny the Republicans a win here or there. They had little to lose for making a small accommodation.
The downside to this arrangement was, for Republicans, that they couldn’t pass their own ideas; they had to just hope they could make a Democratic bill a bit more conservative. Simultaneously, Democrats were lulled into believing that their agenda was more popular than it really was—a vulnerability Gingrich eventually exploited in 1994. But the upside for the country was that Congress operated with a modicum of bipartisanship. Committees existed as institutions that, in many ways, were invested in true problem solving, if more often with a liberal bent. Congress debated issues—but the vitriol and hate were limited because, though the policy stakes were high, the political stakes were not, as it was assumed Democrats would never lose the House.
Since 1994, that’s all changed. Because the House majority is on the ballot nearly every two years—control of the chamber has flipped three times since 1994—the incentives are different. Every day is a battle both because the majority party doesn’t know if they’ll control the agenda in the next Congress and because, for the minority, scoring political points can have an outsized impact on the ballot box. The incentives for cooperation have been entirely eclipsed by the reward for eviscerating the other side (for the minority party) or boxing the minority out from having any influence.
The evidence of the the shift is everywhere on Capitol Hill. You can see it in floor speeches, where remarks are rarely designed to convince members of the other party so much as they’re designed to cast a member’s opponents in an unfavorable light. You can see it in committee hearings where, far too often, witnesses are invited not to provide authentic insight but rather to burnish a political argument that the committee chair already embraces. But most powerfully, you see it in the decisions taken by party leaders. Substantive bills coming out of the House—all the most important emerging largely on a single-party vote, opposed uniformly by the opposition—are dead on arrival in the Senate, where even minority senators can kill single-party bills with the filibuster.
It need not be this way. After all, members in flippable districts—and those representing persuadable voters—have an incentive to be bipartisan for two reasons. First, as it turns out, bipartisan ideas are often the most effective and long-lasting, as evidenced by the deals made by Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill and later by Bill Clinton and Gingrich himself. Second, bipartisanship in flippable districts is politically potent: Voters want their members to put problem solving above partisanship. Talk to members from purple districts and you’ll find a bevy of men and women hungry to work across the aisle.
Which points to the problem today: the incentives operating on House leaders. In the last Congress, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was hemmed in by the extremist demands of the Freedom Caucus, members who threatened to recall the Speaker if he strayed too far from conservative orthodoxy. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t quite so constrained in this Congress due to rules changes promoted by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. But she still needs to keep members from deep-blue districts happy, which prevents her in many cases from championing bipartisan legislation.
A quarter-century after the Republican Revolution, the House needs another course correction. Newt Gingrich may have intended primarily to champion a more conservative agenda—but the upshot of his success was to breed dysfunction on Capitol Hill. We need more leaders to stand up for bipartisanship. We need to strengthen and grow the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. And we need to prevail on leaders in both parties that the smart thing to do, both for the country and for their own members, is to breathe new life into the legacy of bipartisanship that once prevailed in the nation’s capital.