As Membership Dwindles, the GOP Class of ‘94 Assesses Its Legacy

Signers of the Contract With America, who gave their party control of the House for the first time in four decades, are contemplating a reunion this fall.

Newt Gingrich (center), speaker of the US House of Representatives, holds up a copy of the 'Contract With America' during a speech on 07 April 1995 on the steps of the US Capitol.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
March 31, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

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.”

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