Former House Leaders Say the Current Group Has It Rough

* FILE ** House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, meet reporters on Capitol Hill in this Wednesday, Sept. 9, 1998, file photo, in Washington.  Instead of a birthday cake for the Contract with America's 10th anniversary, Republicans at their 2004 national convention in New York  have given it a cold shoulder. The cavalcade of speakers addressing this week's GOP gathering has not mentioned the campaign manifesto House Republicans used in 1994 to end 40 years as the chamber's minority party.
National Journal
Jill Lawrence
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Jill Lawrence
Sept. 23, 2013, 4:32 p.m.

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.

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