They arrived in the House perceived as a group of antigovernment zealots, 73 of them elected in a wave intending to shake up Congress and Washington—even if that led to shutting down the government.
Today, only 11 members of the Republican class of ’94—who took their inspiration from Ronald Reagan rather than a tea party—still serve in the House, and five others have moved to the Senate. At most, only 10 of the 16 will be left in Congress next year.
Still, there is talk of a 20-year anniversary reunion event this fall, according to the man who led this GOP “revolution.”
“I think there’s probably going to be an event on the anniversary of the signing of the Contract,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview, referring to the pledges by Republican candidates in September 1994—kicking off a tide-turning election campaign—to honor a new “Contract With America.”
Some of these members get together informally every two years. But an event pegged to the 20th anniversary of the class will surely touch off a new round of discourse and rehash over what, exactly, should be the lasting legacy of this vanishing band.
Comparisons with the even larger class of GOP freshmen who came to power in 2010 on a tea-party wave are also sure to occur.
In 1994, these were the upstart Republicans who helped seize control of the House for their party for the first time in 40 years, and who set the GOP on a course to remain in the majority for 16 of the next 20 years. They made some notable reforms in their two first congressional sessions and had some historic standoffs with President Clinton, including showdowns over the federal budget that led to government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996.
But in ensuing years, internal divisions and public controversies broke down the unity of the revolutionaries. A presidential impeachment would shift their focus. There was even an unsuccessful attempt by some in the class of ’94 to unseat Gingrich as speaker.
“Scandals—we had a share of those,” acknowledged Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who served as the group’s first president as a House member in 1995. Wicker also said the shutdowns in late 1995 and extending into 1996 “were not our proudest moments.”
But both Wicker and Gingrich argue that the GOP lawmakers from two decades ago were also the drivers of historic and positive changes to government. Many became notable leaders elsewhere, including in the Senate, in statehouses—and even in the media, in the case of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.
“Let’s take the immediate four years: Virtually everything that Clinton claims credit for, this class was part of,” said Gingrich.
“When you talk about welfare reform, it was driven by the election of ’94. When you talk about the only four balanced budgets in a row in your lifetime, they came out of this class and out of the decision to balance the federal budget,” he said. “When you look at term limits for committee chairmen, which is still in place, that was imposed by the class. And that was a pretty substantial strategic change in how the House operates.”
The class of ’94 has been decimated by retirements, deaths, campaigns for other offices, and scandal. And with the recent announced retirement plans of Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who both entered the House in 1994, along with Reps. Tom Latham of Iowa and Doc Hastings of Washington, and the failed bid for the Senate by Rep. Steve Stockman in Texas, the number will fall next session to no more than 10.
Beyond Latham and Hastings, the five other House members who have served continually in the chamber since 1994 are Reps. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Mac Thornberry of Texas, and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Four others have returned to the House after leaving: Reps. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Matt Salmon of Arizona, Steve Chabot of Ohio, and Stockman.
Wicker, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina remain as senators along with Chambliss and Coburn from the 1994 House GOP freshman ranks.
From Gingrich’s perspective, there are three big differences between the 1994 revolutionaries and the 2010 tea-party freshmen.
“First, we stood on Ronald Reagan’s shoulders,” he said. “We had a generation of Reagan educating the country. Nothing comparable has happened. There’s been no systematic and articulate Republican leader since Reagan. So, we don’t have the groundwork set for people to understand what we’re doing.
“Second, Clinton was a totally different figure from Obama,” Gingrich said. “And third, the news media was not nearly as inclined to cover up for Clinton as they are for Obama today. And so you had a much bigger headwind today than you would have had in the mid-1990s.”
Any knocks on the class of ’94? “They made me speaker,” Gingrich joked. He suggested House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi might be a better source for that, but her office declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Sanford—who has seen his own career careen from success to scandal to a return to the House—seems to take the idea of “legacy” in stride. “I would say the word ‘legacy’ is overused in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We all like to be memorialized. Believe me, if anybody has an appreciation of the fleetingness of our perceived importance—well, then, I have an appreciation of that. We come and go; we’re all a lot less important than we thought we were.”
Wicker is not so dismissive of the group’s legacy. But he says that, in his view, there is an ongoing and prevailing misperception about the freshman class of ’94.
“The press, the national press in particular, often tried to fit us into a preconceived mold of bomb-throwers and revolutionaries,” Wicker said. “And the truth of the matter is there were a lot more of us that I would term pragmatic conservatives. And we did not come to town to tear the buildings down. We came to town to change the direction of the federal government.
“The main thing was that there were bureaucrats throughout Capitol Hill and people who had become comfortable after decades and decades, and it never occurred to them Democrats would be in the minority, and this place was due for a shake-up,” he said. “And we gave it to them, and rightly so.”
This article appears in the April 1, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as 20-Year Ode to a Republican Revolution.