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How should Republicans govern in the 114th Congress to assure their positive place in history? While every Congress is unique, there are recent examples of what they could do, and what they should avoid.
The 96th Congress (1979-1981)
The election of 1978 marked the best House Republican pick up since their banner year of 1966. Their modest twelve seat gain only raised their Watergate depleted ranks to 158. Senate Republicans gained only three, but achieved the anti-Cloture threshold of 41 seats. However, the real story of the 1978 election, and the 96th Congress, was the caliber of the incoming Republicans.
The Senate’s conservative ranks expanded with several dynamic additions. Thad Cochran, Gordon Humphrey, Roger Jepson, and Alan Simpson began their Senate careers, while conservative icons Jessie Helms,Strom Thurmond, and John Tower were re-elected.
When House Republicans gathered in early January 1979, they convened the largest number of conservative activist Freshmen in their history. Among the Freshmen were the next generation of conservative leaders - Doug Bereuter, Carroll Campbell, Jr., Dick Cheney, Dan Crane, William Dannemeyer, Newt Gingrich, Larry J. Hopkins, Ken Kramer, Jerry Lewis, Tom Loeffler, Dan Lungren, Chip Pashayan, Ron Paul, Donald Rittter, Toby Roth, Jim Sensenbrenner, Gerald Solomon, and Tom Tauke.
Welcoming these future leaders were a battle tested core of conservatives, most of them re-elected by landslides: John Ashbrook 67.4%, Robert Bauman 63.5%, Phil Crane 79.5%, Bob Dornan 51.0%, Chuck Grassley 74.8%, George Hansen 57.3%, Jack Kemp 94.8%, Tom Kindness 71.4%, Dan Quayle 64.4%, John Rousselot Unopposed, Steve Symms 59.9%,and Robert Walker 77.0%.
Despite their meager minority, Republicans had two once-in-a-lifetime advantages. President Jimmy Carter was the Velcro President. His fixation with micro-management ensnared his administration in missed opportunities, bungled initiatives, and the onus of incompetence. The other advantage was Governor Ronald Reagan. Conservatives were almost unanimous in viewing the inevitability of a Reagan Presidency as approaching cavalry arriving to save America from communists abroad and liberals at home.
Within this construct, Congressional Republicans viewed themselves as the valiant defenders of a beleaguered garrison, holding out until the relief column saved the day.
This unanimity of hope allowed the faction-prone conservative movement to rise above egos and special interests to embrace the looming Reagan Revolution. This freed all participants to create the most coordinated assault on a Presidency in the Twentieth Century.
At the hub of the 96th Congress wrecking crew was an interlocking array of coordination groups linking Members and staff to think tanks and grassroots groups. The Kingston Group was the epicenter – acting as the strategic driver. The Stanton Group was the foreign and defense policy hub. Library Court was the domestic hub, framing family and faith issues within the larger Reagan fusionist conservative platform. Monday Club was the freewheeling social and networking luncheon. Within Congress the Dirty Dozen coordinated Senate conservative efforts while the Chesapeake Society and the Republican Study Committee directed conservative House legislative operations. In the House, the trio of Ashbrook, Bauman, and Rousselot commanded the Floor with their mastery of parliamentary procedure and expansive opposition research.
1979 was the first year for CSPAN broadcasting gavel to gavel coverage of House proceedings. Dornan and Bauman became early stars in bringing Guerilla Theater to the House Floor. The 96th Congress remains the golden age of effective and selfless collaboration for the greater good of the conservative movement. The Reagan era received a running start thanks to its efforts.
The 104th Congress (1995-1997)
After forty years in the wilderness, House Republicans charged into their first majority in two generations. Republicans also picked up eight seats to reclaim the Senate for the first time since 1986. There was no Ronald Reagan to anticipate and President Bill Clinton was a wily adversary beloved by the mainstream media. The result was that Congressional Republicans had to promote their own far reaching ideas, possibly to the end of Clinton’s two terms. Playing offense instead of defense was also an opportunity to redefine the Republican Party for a new generation and to articulate a second phase of the Reagan Revolution.
With a House majority of 230 Republicans, Speaker Newt Gingrich and his inner circle launched an aggressive 100 day legislative agenda to obtain votes on all key aspects of his “Contract with America”. This manifesto helped nationalize the 1994 election and power Republicans to their historic and mostly unexpected landslide.
By the Easter Recess in 1995, all “Contract with America” legislation had cleared the House. Much of it died in a timid and unfocused Senate, with some passing Congress only to die on Clinton’s desk. The greatest failings of the 104th Congress were lack of cooperation between the two chambers, and having no vision or strategy for governance past their hundred day marathon.
Republican Committee members did not use their new majority forum to lay the ground work for future battles. They assumed that gaining approval from conservative talk radio was enough to move boldly. This was to come to grief in their budget showdown with President Clinton in the autumn of 1995. Having not built a compelling case to the general public for spending cuts, their government shutdown was framed as payback for a personal slight to Gingrich on Air Force One. Republicans were out maneuvered. While the Federal budget was balanced thanks to higher tax revenues from a booming economy, Republican budget hawks retreated, spending grew, and the era of earmark abuse began.
The 104th Congress is mostly known for its far reaching management reforms and making the Legislative Branch subject to the laws they proposed. Otherwise, it remains an epic series of missed opportunities and atrophy, leading to an uninspiring ten year tenure, ending in the free fall from grace in the 2006 elections.
The 114th Congress (2015-2017)
Life is good for the Republicans convening the new Congress. They have control of the entire legislative branch for the first time in eight years. Their 246 House majority is the largest Republican presence since Calvin Coolidge was President.
So far they are tracking like the 104th Congress, quick off the mark with big votes on big issues. Republicans assume the November 2014 election results were enough to validate their stance on these issues. At some point they will have to settle down for a long term strategy. Unlike the 96th Congress, they do not have unity on ideology or on which Republican will replace Obama. The conservative movement is more fractured today than at any other point in its history. There is no dominant figure, politically or intellectually, to unite egos and interests into a greater good crusade. Their antagonist is President Obama, who is defiant and dismissive of their November victory. The mainstream media remains Obama’s home field advantage. Their cheering section is already writing stories on Obama’s big comeback, while breathlessly waiting to pounce on the first GOP misstep no matter how minor.
What will happen? Like a long distance runner, the burst of energy before stadium crowds needs to settle into a marathon pace for the long stretch before adjournment in October 2016. Republicans need to learn from the 96th Congress. They need to methodically build their case for controlling federal spending and corralling regulations. Their audience is not just Fox News and talk radio. It is not just those who voted for them in November (the 2016 electorate will be much larger and more diverse). Republicans need to adopt the “reasonable person rule”. Would a “reasonable person” - one who is not necessarily political, but is informed and follows the news, support their proposals? Will these reasonable people think “that makes sense, I am glad they want to do this”?
If Republicans use their control of committees to hold compelling hearings that build their case explaining their rationale, they will win over these reasonable people, prove they can effectively govern, and make their case for expanding Republican dominance to the Executive Branch.
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