Newt Gingrich in Duluth, Georgia, Thursday, October, 28, 2010. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
How much Americans hate Congress has become cliché. Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low, and it’s not hard to see why: the institution is broken. Plenty of structural forces have contributed to Congress’s dysfunction: the increasing flow of money in politics, the emergence of the 24/7 cable news cycle, the increasing polarization of the electorate. But perhaps no single person bears as much responsibility as Newt Gingrich.
“I spent 16 years building a majority in the House for the first time since 1954,” Gingrich said during NBC’s Florida GOP debate Monday night, referring to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Over those sixteen years of personal and partisan striving, Gingrich invented or perfected many of the things that Americans dislike most about Congress. “I think I am a transformational figure,” Gingrich said before the 1994 election. “I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change, the liberal Democratic machine” will fight it, Gingrich explained.
There is no greater pathology in today’s Congress than obstructionism, from Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) refusal to raise the debt ceiling in July to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) taking disaster relief funds for Hurricane Irene hostage. Both parties have long used Congress’s procedural rules to promote legislation they favor, but Gingrich created something new. “There is the assumption—pioneered by Newt Gingrich himself, as early as the 1970s—that the minority wins when Congress accomplishes less,” Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number-two Democrat in the House, explained in a 2009 speech at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Gingrich’s proposition, and maybe accurately, was that as long as…our party cooperate[s] with Democrats and get[s] 20 or 30 percent of what we want and they get to say they solved the problem and had a bipartisan bill, there’s no incentive for the American people to change leadership,” Hoyer told the Washington Post after the speech. “To some degree, he was proven right in 1994.”
In many ways, the obstructionist minority that Hoyer faced two years ago was following a playbook written by Gingrich over a decade earlier. Gingrich, in fact, took the debt ceiling hostage fifteen years before Boehner did, demanding huge, partisan cuts. In that case, the GOP backed down after President Clinton vetoed their spending bills and Moody’s warned of a credit downgrade. When Boehner refused to raise the debt ceiling, the threat of default lowered the US’s credit rating and was resolved by an complicated process involving a “supercommittee” and a two-step raising of the debt limit over a year. And it was Gingrich who, in one of his first acts as Speaker, patented the practice of refusing to approve disaster relief funds if they weren’t offset with spending cuts. Gingrich even held out after the Oklahoma City bombing later that year, prompting the Philadelphia Daily News to write, “Even Newt Gingrich must lose a little sleep at the idea of making political hay out of the mini-civil war that struck Oklahoma City.”