Politics & Policy

House Republicans in the Red

The right agenda -- then, now, later.

Remember Ideas for Tomorrow, Choices for Today? You know, it was the January 1985 “red book” in which the House Republican Research Committee laid out an ambitious agenda for the 99th Congress. Remember its concise analyses of current policies and future challenges? Remember its 252 specific proposals?

Of course you don’t remember. Practically nobody does. I know about it only because I worked on the document as a low-level staffer for Research Committee.

Nevertheless, that 23-year-old project is worth pondering today. Many are suggesting that House Republicans can recover from their current woes through aggressive “rebranding.” Recently the House Republican Conference issued a pro-family agenda under the heading “The Change You Deserve.” Critics pointed out that a drug company used the same slogan to peddle an antidepressant. The Republicans then switched to “The Change America Deserves.” (Note to the Conference staff: As of Tuesday, the old slogan was still up on the website.) Meanwhile, the conservative Republican Study Committee has issued its own eight-point action plan.

Such activity is healthy. House Republicans ought to deliberate about what they believe, and describe what they would do if they regained the majority. But the fate of the 1985 agenda suggests that they should not expect an immediate impact.

Months of labor went into that project. The Research Committee did yeoman work in drafting a high-definition vision of conservative governance. The document linked general principles to particular bills dealing with everything from NATO to missing children. The committee staff had pitched the agenda to reporters all over the capital, and few other news stories were vying for attention. So when GOP leaders rolled it out on January 14, hopes were high that it could get everybody talking.

And then … Washington shrugged. The press conference got no farther than page A5 of the Washington Post and A12 of the New York Times. Within a few days, the project received no more ink. Republican politicians and activists quickly moved on to other things.

What happened? One may find a clue in the Post headline: “House GOP Issues List of `New Ideas’ — Minority Concedes that Few Items are likely to Gain Floor Approval.” The quotation marks around “new ideas” were snarky, but the subhead was accurate. The majority Democrats were not about to bring the Republican agenda up for a vote. And there was no chance of a GOP majority anytime soon. The Republicans had gained only a handful of seats in the 1984 Reagan landslide, and were likely to lose some in the 1986 midterm.

Republicans today face a similar plight. Plausible scenarios for the 2008 election range from a modest seat loss to a catastrophic wipeout. The party is not going to control the House next year. Enactment of the agenda lies somewhere over the rainbow.

Another reason for the 1985 fizzle became evident during the rollout press conference. One of the participants was Representative Jack Kemp (R., NY), chair of the Republican conference and — more important — a presidential contender. As Mary McGrory wrote, the assembled journalists listened to the other leaders for only a couple of minutes. Then one reporter called out, “Can’t we have Mr. Kemp?” The rest of the press conference was largely about Jack Kemp’s campaign and President Reagan’s upcoming State of the Union Address.

Presidents and would-be presidents tend to eclipse their party colleagues in the House, especially if the latter are in the minority. When people today think of the Republican party, they think of George Bush or John McCain. Through little fault of their own, congressional Republicans are powerless to overcome that force of political physics.

The story of the “red book” is not totally bleak. From workfare to congressional reform, it anticipated many of the changes that Republicans were able to carry out a decade later. The moral: It is worthwhile to plant the seeds, even if the harvest is a long time coming.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.


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