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.”
Of course, Gingrich’s greatest act of obstructionist brinkmanship was the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns. Thanks to his refusal to concede on spending on social services, the government closed for five days in 1995, longer than the previous eight government shutdowns, and for a whopping twenty-one days a year later—the longest shutdown in history. Thanks to Gingrich’s obstinacy, health and welfare services for veterans were curtailed, Social Security checks were delayed, tens of thousands of visa applications went unprocessed and “numerous sectors of the economy” we negatively impacted, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Then there’s perhaps the most universally reviled practice of Congress: earmarking. Spending on earmarks doubled during Gingrich’s reign as Speaker, rising from $7.8 billion in 1994 to $14.5 billion in 1997. “Speaker Gingrich set in motion the largest explosion of earmarks in the history of Congress,” said Tom Schatz of the conservative group Citizens Against Government Waste. The pork binge was part of a Machiavellian plot to use taxpayer dollars to help Republicans get reelected, as Gingrich himself laid out in a 1996 policy memo titled, “Proposed Principles for Analyzing Each Appropriations Bill.” The memo instructed the chairmen of House Appropriation subcommittees to ask themselves if there are “any Republican members” who “need a specific district item in the bill.” This apparently included Gingrich himself, as Cobb County, Georgia, which the Speaker represented, received more federal dollars per resident than any other suburban county in the country in 1995, except for Arlington, Virginia, home of the Pentagon and other federal agencies, and Brevard County, Florida, home to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.
This partisan earmarking has led Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a longtime anti-earmark crusader who has endorsed Mitt Romney, to dub Gingrich “the father of contemporary earmarking. ” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) went even further on a Romney campaign conference call Wednesday, saying that Gingrich’s plan to “distribute these earmarks led directly to the Abramoff scandal, Congressman Bob Ney going to jail and the corruption that I saw with my own eyes.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich was busy creating the climate of nearly nihilistic partisanship that reigns today. In May of 1988, against the wishes of the more moderate GOP leadership, Gingrich brought ethics charges against then-Democratic Speaker Jim Wright relating to a book deal. “This was very much Newt’s initiative,” John Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who has studied Gingrich for years, told The Nation. Gingrich successfully forced Wright to resign “and that really, for the first time, kind of politicized the entire ethics process,” Larry Evans, a government professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, told NPR in December. Ten years later, Gingrich was brought down by a similarly politically charged ethics process, when he was fined $300,000 for flouting tax laws with a tax-exempt college class that Democrats charged was actually political propaganda.
Before Wright, Gingrich tussled with another Democratic speaker and made a name for himself by exploiting the media and the new medium of C-SPAN. Gingrich was sworn in to his first term just a few months before C-SPAN went on the air in 1979, and as an ambitious freshman, he quickly realized the network’s potential. He and a small cadre of young Republicans he led pilloried then-Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill and other Democratic lawmakers nightly with personal attacks, no matter how unfair, like when he accused the Speaker of putting “communist propaganda” in the Speaker’s lobby.
O’Neill was so irritated by Gingrich’s speeches that he once ordered the House cameras to pan across the empty House chamber to expose that Gingrich was speaking to no one but the cameras, and called Gingrich’s exploits “the lowest thing that I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress. Gingrich fired back that O’Neil was coming “all too close to resembling a McCarthyism of the Left.” The resulting the two-hour exchange, which was covered on every broadcast news outlet that night, made Gingrich into a national hero for conservatives and a villain to liberals.
It was the “moment that made Gingrich,” as Pitney wrote on his blog, and set the mold of punching up in the media that ambitious upstart firebrands like Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) would follow for years to come.”If you’re not in the Washington Post every day, you might as well not exist,” Gingrich told Newsweek in the late 80s.
With his newfound fame and a small army of fiery conservative lawmakers behind him—the so-called Conservative Opportunity Society Gingrich created formed in 1983—Gingrich set out to remake the GOP. He narrowly won an election to be House minority whip in 1989 over a more moderate Republican from Illinois and with this official position, he ventured to “build a much more aggressive, activist party,” as he put it. He beefed up the party’s fundraising and recruiting operations to get more Republicans elected and hired pollster Frank Luntz to manage the party’s messaging. Five years later, Gingrich led a wave of fifty-four new Republicans into the House and was elected Speaker.
Of course, Gingrich’s greatest act of punching up would have to wait until he was Speaker, when he exploited Congressional power to impeach President Clinton for having an affair while he himself was having an affair with his current wife Callista. When Univision correspondent Jorge Ramos asked Gingrich about this hypocrisy Wednesday, Gingrich replied, “No, I criticized President Clinton for lying under oath in front of a federal judge, committing perjury—which is a felony for which normal people go to jail.” But as Clinton’s overwhelming popularity today attests, Gingrich’s crusade lacked merit and was plainly political. “Their efforts have succeeded only in turning a serious constitutional process into a partisan process that demeaned both the House and the Senate and became a painful ordeal for the entire country,” Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) said at the time.
Just as important, but often overlooked today, is the way in which Gingrich centralized power in party leadership. Progressive Democrats, frustrated with Southern conservative Democrats’ controlling committee chairmanships, started this trend in 1970s, Pitney said, but Gingrich consolidated power in himself to an unprecedented degree by making it so the Speaker could appoint key committee chairmanships. This allowed him to tightly control the agenda and sideline dissident factions in his party in a way that every Speaker since has exploited. “There was a lot of heightened partisanship on both sides, but Gingrich was very vivid, was very much a part of this process” of polarization, Pitney told The Nation.
In another structural change that persists to this day, Gingrich shortened the Congressional workweek to three days in order to maximize fundraising opportunities and provide more contact with constituents. But this also cut down on the amount of time lawmakers spent together in Washington where they could make personal connections across the aisle.
All together, Gingrich’s emphasis on partisan warfare über alles sped the demise of the comity that is essential to the functioning of Congress. If the parties refuse to work together, little can be achieved without super-majorities. It was Gingrich who made winning, rather than good governance, the chief currency of success. Earlier this month, James Lardner laid out in this magazine a proposal to roll back much of Gingrich’s work and fix Congress—but now Gingrich is campaigning to takeover another branch of government. One can only imagine the damage he might inflict there.