Texas: Twenty-Sixth District|
Rep. Dick Armey (R)
Last Updated June 25, 1999
On the northern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, one of America's most affluent and fastest-growing metropolitan areas heads out into hardscrabble countryside. Here is a clash of cultures, the advance of one set of values and beliefs with another. On one side are the values of North Dallas, of the entrepreneurs who have created fortunes, starting from scratch with a good idea, a willingness to work, a determination to find good luck. They work in the dozens of high-rises that line the freeways of north Dallas or in smaller offices in industrial areas, they live in the affluent areas, starting with the super-wealthy Park Cities area not far north of downtown Dallas or in any one of dozens of comfortable neighborhoods running dozens of miles north. They believe in free markets, in personal responsibility, in traditional values, in the Republican Party: This is one of the most heavily Republican areas in the nation. And it is advancing into what used to be one of the most Democratic.
The tiers of Texas counties south of the Red River were the home of Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House and author of New Deal regulations, always suspicious of bankers and big corporations and eager to have government weigh in on the side of the little guy. Rayburn and his colleagues were sometimes infected with the pessimism of the farmer, for whom there is always something that can go wrong and not much protection against it and whose spirit was held down by the sheer physical effort needed to scratch a living from these hills. They believed in economic redistribution, regulations and usury ceilings, and the Democratic Party. It is fairly clear which of these views is winning in North Texas. Forty years ago the Republican vote here was limited to affluent neighborhoods within a few miles of the Park Cities. Now it has spread out far into the countryside, into counties which once voted near-unanimously for Mr. Sam's Democrats.
The 26th Congressional District covers much of the northern part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Its boundaries were substantially changed by the August 1996 court-ordered redistricting which followed the June 1996 Supreme Court decision declaring the boundaries of the adjacent 30th District unconstitutional because of racial gerrymandering. It now includes the Park Cities and the affluent quadrant of North Dallas between the Central Expressway and the Stemmons Freeway. It includes Carrollton and Farmers Branch to the northwest and the wonderfully named Grapevine just north of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It also includes half of Denton County, once rural and Democratic, now suburban and affluent and very heavily Republican. Overall, this is a very Republican district, with little partisan effect from the boundary changes. A little more than half its voters are in Dallas County and about one-third in Denton County.
The congressman from the 26th District is Dick Armey, first elected in 1984, now the House majority leader. He is a free market economist who once was such a political nonentity that he did not even attend the 1984 Republican National Convention in nearby Dallas where Ronald Reagan was renominated. His political career could never have happened before the 1980s. He grew up on a farm in Cando, North Dakota--pronounced affirmatively as can do. At 18, working atop an electric pole at night when it was 30 below zero, he decided to become the first in his family to go to college. By 1984, Armey was an economics professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, a Northern-accented academic in the Red River Valley of Texas: not a likely candidate for anything. But as he was watching the House sessions on C-SPAN, it occurred to him that he could do as well as or better than the people he was watching on the screen. He got the Republican nomination in the 26th in 1984 unopposed, because no one thought incumbent Tom Vandergriff, the long-time mayor of Arlington, then the largest city in the 26th, could be unseated. But Armey won 51%-49%.
Armey arrived in Washington in modest circumstances--''When I came to Washington, the only congressman I'd known or spent much time with was the man I beat''--and he saved money by sleeping first in the House gym and, when forced to stop, on his office couch--a practice that has since been abandoned by Armey but was okayed for others by Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. Armey brought to the House a sometimes impolitic bluntness, but also fine political instincts and an appreciation of how to sell his principles to his colleagues. His first major achievement was the military base closing bill. In 1987, Armey proposed a base closing commission operating outside of politics, but neither Congress nor then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were ready to delegate such power. After a long debate, Armey worked with the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then-Armed Services Chairman Les Aspin to create an independent commission that would draw up a list of base closings which Congress would have to approve or reject in its entirety. The result: In 1988 Congress approved the first base closings in 12 years. The 1990 round of closings was rejected, but in 1993 the second round of base closings was approved. In 1995, a more modest third round was proposed by the Clinton Administration and subsequently was approved. Armey's bill had changed political incentives so that they ratcheted government spending down, not up.
Armey has had less immediate success with his next target, farm subsidies. He argued persuasively that subsidies are no more needed to maintain supplies of the six large subsidized crops than they are for the hundreds of crops which manage to be produced without subsidies and that farmers no more deserve subsidies than any other small businessmen. He forged an alliance on the issue with Brooklyn Democrat Charles Schumer, but was never able to prevail on the floor. But in 1996 the Republican Congress passed the Freedom to Farm Act, phasing out most of the subsidies over seven years.
Armey had little success in his first decade as a minority back-bencher on the Economic and Educational Opportunities or Budget Committees, where he was outvoted by committed partisans of expanded domestic programs, which he attacked. But he found more sympathizers in the Republican Conference. He strongly opposed President Bush's budget summit tax increase and determined to get ''a seat at the table.'' So after the 1992 election, Armey ran for Republican Conference chairman against incumbent Jerry Lewis, who had supported the budget summit. Armey won the number-three leadership position 88-84, winning the lion's share of the 47 freshmen Republicans and gaining crucial support from Lewis's California delegation as well. This put Armey into leadership meetings at the White House, at one of the first of which he told President Clinton that passage of his budget and tax plan would make him a ''one-term president''--not the first or last Armey breach of Washington's collegial etiquette. He is capable of bitter riposte: During the 1994 crime bill debate, when Democrats talked of the need to support Clinton, Armey said, ''Your president is just not that important for us''--he soon apologized, and Minority Leader Bob Michel took him to task.
When Gingrich came up with the idea of having all Republican incumbents and candidates sign a pledge on the steps of the Capitol in September 1994, Armey spearheaded the effort to draw up and then sell--including to some doubters within his own party, let alone other parts of Washington's political class--many of the specifics of the Contract with America. Along with Gingrich, he then traveled virtually non-stop across the nation in the month before the election to raise money and enthusiasm for Republican candidates. After Republicans won control in November, Armey gained his just reward of being elected majority leader without opposition. And he then surprised many with his legislative skill in commanding the 100-day schedule that delivered on the Republicans' campaign promise to debate each item of the Contract, with the House passing everything except term limits. Later scheduling got more ragged, and members complained about votes scheduled at odd hours or business put off until inconvenient times. Some of these were due to the inevitable inefficiency of a process never designed to be efficient. In fact, the Republicans, with Gingrich plotting long-range strategy in his office overlooking the Washington Monument and Armey operating more on the floor as ''the chief operating officer,'' performed more competently than their utter lack of experience managing a legislative majority gave warrant to imagine. During the 1996-97 controversy over the Gingrich ethics complaint, Armey was careful to stay supportive in public but presumably made some preparation in private to succeed Gingrich should that have been necessary.
There was some tension between Armey's personal stands and his leadership responsibilities. He would have liked to see all farm subsidies cut, but realized that Southern Republicans from cotton districts would block such a bill. He said that he would oppose a minimum wage increase ''with every fiber of my being,'' but became reconciled when Gingrich and others realized they had to let it go through. And he acquiesced in the 1997 budget deal, with its complicated tax incentives, which were entirely contrary to the thrust of his current favorite proposal, a flat tax of 20% for two years, then 17%, with generous personal allowances and no taxes on capital gains, dividends, interest or inheritances. But the flat tax had competition from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer's consumption-based tax, and neither was likely to be pushed forward as long as Clinton was president--although Armey and Billy Tauzin conducted a series of ''scrap the code'' debates across the country on the merits of the flat tax versus the consumption tax.
By mid-1997 there was tension between Gingrich and Armey, who felt the speaker had undercut him. As he said later, ''I had his responsibilities while he retained the authority, and it turned out to be a difficult thing.'' Asked by reporters on June 17 whether he had faith in Gingrich's leadership, Armey pointedly said, ''Y'all have a good day, now.'' Then in July came the attempted coup. Armey met with the aggrieved conservative junior members who wanted to get rid of Gingrich and listened to their case. He also met with fellow leadership members Tom DeLay, John Boehner and Bill Paxon; all said they had the impression he supported the coup, and said he had said he would run for speaker if Gingrich was ousted. But when DeLay met with the coup leaders, Tom Coburn said they wanted Paxon to replace Gingrich. The leaders had agreed to inform Gingrich of the coup, but Armey arrived first and told him. The coup collapsed and recriminations began. At a mid-July meeting of the Republican Conference, Armey insisted that he had never supported the coup, at which point Lindsey Graham knocked down a chair and tried to rush to the microphone. The belief was widespread that Armey supported the coup until he learned its leaders supported Paxon over him for speaker. But it was Paxon, not Armey, who resigned his leadership position. This episode pretty well killed Armey's chances of moving up the leadership ladder. Bob Livingston, persuaded by Gingrich to stay in Congress in early 1998, began to organize an aggressive campaign for speaker should Gingrich step down; Paxon was rumored to be running for majority leader until his sudden resignation in February 1998.
It was plain that Armey would be challenged for the majority leadership post at the November 1998 Republican Conference. When Gingrich announced his retirement as speaker, Armey did not run for it; it soon became clear that Livingston had the votes, and he reportedly decided to strip Armey of his power over the House schedule. Running against Armey were Steve Largent, with the support of many coup leaders and strong conservatives, and Jennifer Dunn. Chief Deputy Whip Denny Hastert was urged to run by Mike Castle and Thomas Ewing, and Hastert asked Armey to be relieved of his commitment to vote for him; Armey refused, and Hastert declined to run, though his name was put in nomination. On the first round of voting, Armey led with 100 votes to 58 for Largent, 45 for Dunn and 18 for Hastert. On the second round, Armey led with 99 to 73 for Largent and 49 for Dunn. Finally Armey beat Largent on the third round, 127-95, a decisive margin but scarcely an inspiring one for an incumbent.
As majority leader, Armey has sponsored few pieces of legislation himself. One exception is the auto choice bill, which would encourage states to allow car owners to agree to give up ''pain and suffering'' damages, most of which go directly to trial lawyers, in return for lower insurance premiums; it has an interesting set of co-sponsors, including Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mitch McConnell. He also sponsored the voucher amendment to provide as much as $3,200 for tuition for poor children at private schools in the District of Columbia. He strongly opposed Clinton's $18 billion IMF funding package, and in discussing the subject, mentioned that he had not been out of the U.S. since 1986: ''I've been to Europe once. I don't have to go again.'' But he did travel to the Balkans to visit troops in May 1999.
Out on the stump he was one of the most caustic critics of Clinton's conduct in 1998. In April 1998 he said, ''If it were me that had documented personal conduct along the line of the president's, I would be so filled with shame that I would resign. This president won't do that. His basic credo in life is, 'I will do whatever I can get away with.' '' More jokingly, when asked what his wife would do if he had done what Clinton did, he said, ''I would be looking up from a pool of blood and hearing, 'How do I reload this thing?' '' In August 1998, he told an audience of Texas fundraisers, ''The more you look into this business of the transfer of advanced, sophisticated technology to the Chinese military, which seems to be clearly for campaign contributions, the harder it is to stay away from words like treason.''
Armey still has a rough and ready style. He drives a pickup, wears cowboy boots, quotes country music lyrics and loves to go fishing, often with Justice Clarence Thomas (whose wife Virginia was an Armey staffer from 1993-98). He said that he has never tried to bring home pork, and in fact his base-closing law closed Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. He has been re-elected by overwhelming margins, with 88% against a Libertarian in 1998.
Safe. Armey has consistently been re-elected by huge margins in this very Republican, suburban Dallas district. He will win easily in 2000.
- Pop. 1990: 564,764
- 4.7% rural;
7.9% age 65+;
- 86.7% White,
0.5% Amer. Indian,
9.3% Hispanic origin;
51.7% married couple families;
25.6% married couple fams. w. children;
71.1% college educ.;
median household income: $40,269;
per capita income: $23,770;
median gross rent: $430;
median house value: $117,800.
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