They've been where John Boehner and Eric Cantor are now, trying to manage a passel of hard-liners dug in against compromise. In fact, sometimes they've even been those people themselves. But as the nation once again barrels toward a government shutdown, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, and Dick Armey agree: It wasn't this tough for them when they led the House for a decade starting in the mid-1990s.
"In the old days, the minority tried to create chaos and the majority tried to create a functioning majority to get things done," says Armey, who was House majority leader for eight years starting in 1995. "Lately we got both the majority and the minority trying to create chaos, and a public very upset that these guys can't get anything done."
As chairman of the conservative activist group FreedomWorks for eight years, Armey helped elect many of the tea-party members who are now giving House leaders such conniptions. He now calls the group counterproductive. "FreedomWorks has kind of gone to an extreme level of animosity," he says. Instead of encouraging good work, he says, it's using "overblown, unrealistic, and inflammatory" language, and offending veteran lawmakers who deserve respect. "FreedomWorks is not serving the legislative process well by telling these old guys to just buzz off," says Armey, who is 73. (FreedomWorks spokeswoman Jackie Bodnar says the group is proudly on the right side of "the widening split between the Old Guard's "˜go-along-get-along' attitude, and the new generation of conservative leaders who come to Washington and do what they promised they would do.")
Hastert, who was speaker from 1999 to January 2007, blames the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law — "the worst thing that ever happened to Congress" — for the current crop of rebels. When the parties were allowed to collect unlimited "soft money," they helped find and fund candidates. "The people you got usually weren't too far to the left or to the right. The party was sort of a homogenizing process," Hastert says. Now, he says, Republican members have to worry constantly about primary challenges from the right, financed by outside groups such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.
The three former House leaders have negative things to say about President Obama, whom they consider unpredictable and inflexible. Perhaps through the rosy glow of hindsight, they have relatively fond memories of their dealings with Bill Clinton. He collaborated with them to reform welfare and balance the budget, but also stood firm enough to force two government shutdowns for which an angry public mostly blamed the GOP. Then there's the Senate, now controlled by Democrats and Majority Leader Harry Reid, back then controlled by Republicans and leaders Bob Dole and Trent Lott. Dole "was running for president and had to protect his right, so he cooperated with us," Gingrich recalls. "Lott had been the Republican whip in the House, so he understood the House pretty well."
The House GOP caucus, however, was not a placid place. Gingrich faced ideologues, insurgents, and a failed coup as he tried to ride herd over the first House Republican majority in 40 years. In the midst of a budget showdown 15 years ago, he remembers giving a floor speech attacking his own party's "perfectionist caucus," deriding them as "each in their own world where they are petty dictators" writing their idea of a perfect bill. Gingrich noted in the speech that Republicans controlled only the House and the Senate, and that Clinton was "a liberal Democrat" who "legitimately represents the views of" his party. Then he said that unless the budget was a win for all three — the House, the Senate, and Clinton — "we do not have a bill worthy of being passed."
That kind of rhetoric sounds Mesozoic these days. Republicans control only the House — one-third of the government — rather than the two-thirds of Gingrich's reign. Yet some Republicans somehow think they are going to be able to kill, defund, or delay Obamacare — not only the president's signature achievement, but a goal that has eluded the Clintons and other Democrats ever since Teddy Roosevelt first proposed it a century ago.
Gingrich says now that "Boehner has a 10-times harder job than I did," and that Republicans are right to go after Obamacare. "If you give up repeal before you start, then why would Obama give you anything?" he says. He also is sanguine about the prospect of a government shutdown. The 1995-96 shutdowns "convinced our activists that we were very serious," he says. "And by the summer of '96, we were able to get welfare reform passed into law, so that convinced the moderates that we were responsible."
Hastert talks about getting to know members and their needs. "We got things done by taking our time. If a person had a problem, we tried to work it out," he says. "You couldn't get everything all the time, but you could get a little all the time. And it built up."
But is that even possible in this ideologically charged environment? Hastert implies the answer is not yet. "It just appears to be a lot more fractious," he says. Like Armey, he talks of an unreadiness among lawmakers to shoulder governing responsibilities. "If you have the majority and you have the ability to get something done, you have to realize that you have to come to the table to make it happen. It's an education process," he says.
Eventually, Hastert says, people will realize that if "we're not doing anything, we're going to lose our majority, Democrats will take over, and that's 180 degrees from where I want to go." At that point, he says, Republicans will have a vision of their caskets in a grave, and getting some if not all of what they want will begin to look pretty good.
Better and better, history suggests, as the midterms get closer and closer.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Dennis Hastert served as speaker until 2005; he left on Jan. 3, 2007.