Stephen Slivinski on Newt Gingrich’s Tenure as House Speaker

Stephen Slivinski of the Goldwater Institute recounts a number of Speaker Gingrich’s battles with House conservatives:

The first of many battles between Gingrich and the budget-cutters was over the funding for House committees. A bill the Speaker was pushing would have reversed the hard-won cuts of the previous year. In fact, the legislation would have trashed a key element of the Contract with America: in 1995, when the House cut congressional committee funding by a third, House leaders touted it as one of the first Contract promises kept.

“It should have come as no surprise that some of us were going to say no when they want to hire more Washington bureaucrats,” said budget hawk Mark Neumann of Wisconsin when he declared he would vote against the bill. “When we go out and tell our people we’re going to balance the budget, we can’t start with an increase in our own budget.” With all Democrats opposed to the bill, the swing votes came from eleven GOP budget hawks. It went down to defeat by a narrow margin of three votes.

Gingrich was furious. A few minutes after the vote, he announced an unusual mandatory meeting of all House Republicans in the caucus room right outside the House chamber. The session was going to begin with a roll-call and the Speaker threatened to send the sergeant-at-arms to round up any absent GOP congressman. Once the meeting started, Gingrich fumed. “The eleven geniuses who thought they knew more than the rest of the Congress are going to come up and explain their votes,” he said. It was an unusual step and one that seemed to be motivated mostly by anger.

It turns out, however, that the rebel conservatives were actually quite persuasive. Gingrich eventually got his way, but not after alienating many of his erstwhile allies. Slivinski interpretation is that Gingrich was in the wrong. It is worth noting, however, that efforts to reform government from the legislative branch require independent analytical resources.

That said, Slivinski’s take on Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker is well worth reading, particularly this passage:

The final straw for many was the 1998 budget. When Kasich presented a budget that harkened back to the Contract with America days and included real budget cuts, Gingrich lambasted the budget-cutters in a closed-door meeting. Gingrich’s pushback against fiscal conservatives was a prelude to Congress, a few weeks before the midterm elections of 1998, passing a budget that hiked non-defense discretionary spending by over 5% that year – twice the 1997 budget deal’s increase – and funded a record amount of pork-barrel projects. It was in every way a rout of the very ideals that won the GOP a majority in Congress in the first place. When presented with an option by then-Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and a number of other conservatives in the House to offset some of these hikes with spending cuts in other parts of the budget, Gingrich nixed the idea outright.

Mitt Romney might draw attention to this, particularly in light of his budget-cutting successes in Massachusetts.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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