Speaker Newt Gingrich
Ronald M. Peters, Jr.
This issue of Extensions offers five perspectives on the speakership of Newt Gingrich. They derive from a round table discussion held in November, 2000 at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. The convener of the round table was Randy Strahan of Emory University. I am grateful to him for encouraging the round table participants to put their thoughts in writing for this venue.
In "The Gingrich Speakership in Context," David Rhode applies the "conditional party government" theory to an interpretation of the Gingrich speakership. That theory, which Rhode has developed over the past fifteen years, holds that the strength of party leadership in the House varies according to the cohesiveness of party majorities. The more unified the majorities, the stronger the party leadership is likely to be. On this view, it was probable that the Gingrich speakership would be a strong one, because the longer term tendency toward more homogeneous parties was reinforced by the ideological fervor of the House Republicans that Gingrich had himself recruited. Over the course of Gingrich's four years as Speaker, however, that fervor diminished, and as it did, Gingrich's strength waned. In the end, the strength of the speakership under the Republicans corresponded to the extent of intra-party cohesiveness, as the theory predicts.
Donald Wolfensberger, in "The Institutional Legacy of Speaker Newt Gingrich," argues that the reforms implemented by the House Republicans, especially in the 104th Congress, will prove to be enduring. These reforms aimed at making the House a more transparent, democratic, and fair institution, and a number of them offered no partisan advantage to the House G.O.P. To the contrary, several, including the elimination of proxies, the imposition of term limits on committee chairs, and the reductions in committee staffs arguably hurt the party in its efforts to retain control of the House. Still, according to Wolfensberger, the Republican rules changes have nudged the House in the direction of being a more effective legislative body, and that was their purpose.
One of the focal points of contemporary congressional politics is the budget process. Under the Republicans, the budget battles with President Clinton in 1995 and 1996 were the defining moments of their majority, and the balanced budget act of 1997 their finest accomplishment. In "The Two Speakerships: Newt Gingrich's Impact on Budget Policy" Dan Palazzolo suggests that these two budget battles marked the poles of the Gingrich speakership and revealed two very different leadership strategies, one public and confrontational, the other more traditionally internal and compromising. While the entire struggle over the budget from 1995 through 1997 was of a piece, the contrast between the two strategies employed at the beginning and end of that struggle respectively indicated the decline in Gingrich's influence that accompanied the change in his role.
A similar change in Gingrich's role was observed in the committee rooms. In "Committees, Message Politics, and the Gingrich Legacy," Larry Evans suggests that after the initial bypassing of the committees in favor of ad hoc task forces in the 104th Congress, the committees returned to their central role in policy making in the 105th Congress. Even while restoring the committees to their former, formal role as venues for legislative drafting, however, the leadership continued to exercise unprecedented influence due to the attempt to coordinate the Republican "message." In part, the Republicans were driven to message politics because their legislative agenda was blocked by President Clinton and congressional Democrats. In part, it arose out of the struggle for control of the House itself. For both reasons, the party leadership intruded into the province of the committees as it sought to integrate politics and policy.
In our final article, William Connelly considers Speaker Gingrich himself. Asking, "Newt Who?" Connelly suggests that Speaker Gingrich offered an overbearing, transformational style of leadership in the 104th Congress that contrasted with the more traditional role played by his predecessor, Robert Michel, and Gingrich's successor, Dennis Hastert, a former Michel protege. Gingrich sought to define a new and different role for the Speaker, one grounded in ideas and based on the assumption that a leader could mold institutions rather than to respond to their imperatives. After the dramatic decline in his popularity after the budget showdown of 1995 and 1996, Gingrich was forced into a more transactional leaderhip style, one for which he was ill-suited by temperament. The story of the Gingrich speakership becomes that of a man who, having failed to control his circumstances, allowed his circumstances to control him.
Is there a common theme in these thoughtful reflections on the Gingrich speakership? I think that there is at least a common understanding of what occurred. All of these authors recognize that the Gingrich speakership was historically unusual, and all recognize that it was altered in mid-stream. The Newt Gingrich who rode into power in 1995 was different in many ways than the character who was ridden out of town in 1998. He had been forced to retrench his personal and party ambitions, to alter his leadership style, to confront a rebellion among some of his closest allies, and, in the end, to abandon his leadership position and his House career. Still, even in defeat and resignation, he stood for principles that he had articulated all along. Newt Gingrich saw himself as the leader of a great, organized, and unified congressional party, an American Disraeli. He had, in the end, the courage of that conviction, withdrawing from the stage when it became obvious that he could no longer effectively play the role that he thought history had carved for him. That his party was never as he conceived it to be; that the House of Representatives did not work as he wanted it to work; that the American system of separated powers was designed to frustrate just such an ambition as his: these lessons had escaped the notice of this historian. Perhaps his most lasting legacy will be one that he offered to me in explanation of himself: "I suspect that as Speaker I am," he said, "sui generis." And that he was.
I rise, as they say in the House, to a point of personal privilege. At the conclusion of the 106th Congress, my friend Ed Pease will end his House career to return to his friends and family in Indiana. The Hoosier state's gain is the nation's loss. Ed Pease is everything that a United States Congressman ought to be. He is exceptionally smart, enormously hard working, inherently decent, and congenitally unassuming. He takes no favors and offers only his energy and good sense to the public. A man of firm conviction, he is essentially tolerant of those with whom he disagrees because he respects the sincerity of their convictions. As he leaves public service (to which I hope that he will someday return), his legacy is to have provided a model of what a public servant should be.