January 30, 2006,
In recent months, Republicans in Congress have finally seemed to complete a circuit that began with their complaints about Democratic abuses of power fifteen years ago. Then, House Speaker Jim Wright was one of the GOP's favorite symbols of Democratic imperiousness and loose ethics. One of the controversies that helped sink Wright was the help he gave a business partner and supporter in the form of $30 million worth of earmarks for a dubious development project.
TALK ABOUT AN EVOLUTIONThere was something otherworldly about the circumstances in which Republicans took power in 1995. They seemed to have a mandate from heaven, and that gave Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey the power to drive the institution in unusual ways. They centralized their control and kept the appropriations committee's "cardinals" the chairmen of its subcommittees from pursuing their perpetual calling of unchecked spending.
"We kind of sat on them," Armey says. "Newt Gingrich and I had an advantage. They all knew that no one could call himself a chairman without us. That gave us a leverage that Denny [Hastert] and Tom [DeLay] never had." They also had a boldness that came from inexperience. "In the beginning," says a former leadership staffer, "we were like kids who didn't know what we couldn't do."
It was inevitable that the normal character of the institution would slowly bounce back. Or even rapidly bounce back. The government-shutdown fight in 1995-96 with President Bill Clinton was an epochal defeat for the cause of limited government. House Republicans never quite recovered, even though they continued to tussle with Clinton over spending for a few years afterward, reaching a balanced-budget pact in 1997.
Armey dates the slackening of fiscal discipline to the summer of 1997. "By July of 1997," he says, "the chairman of the appropriations committee said he wouldn't work with me." The balanced budget, achieved in 1998, denied House conservatives their most telling argument against spending that it would increase the deficit. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation notes that in 1998 there were 2,100 earmarks, funds specifically designated by congressmen to go directly to projects instead of being distributed by a federal or state agency. After that, earmarks increased by roughly 33 percent every year.
The shutdown debacle contributed to George W. Bush's formulation of a post-limited-government conservatism. After Bush was elected, he and the GOP Congress forged a mutual embrace of fiscal laxity. The GOP majority wasn't going to sink Bush's agenda, because that would hurt a Republican president and the party's fortunes. Bush wasn't going to veto congressional excess, because that would hurt the GOP majority and the party's fortunes.
Having lost a foil with Clinton, the House GOP lost a certain edge. "What they started to do was to depend on the executive branch for their leadership and their ideas, instead of being a reform party shaping the agenda," says one Republican strategist. "Congress just took what the president sent it and we tried to hold our majority to slam it through."…
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