What's with the GOP freshmen? They won't take "yes" for an answer. Elected as conservatives, pledged to enact the Contract With America, the tight-knit group of 74 Republican frosh can't seem to close the deal. Facing reelection in November, the rookies have yet to deliver on a single piece of legislation balancing the budget, reforming welfare, cutting family taxes, giving business regulatory relief, or even reforming litigation. Rather than compromise even slightly, they have closed the government, threatened the U.S. with fiscal default, and plunged in public standing.
It's a sad spectacle because the GOP freshmen have actually won the battle of the paradigm. They have succeeded in changing the national political agenda. Political discourse is now held in terms of how small a government the U.S. should have, how decentralized it should be, and how much it should cost. The freshmen have had victories in terms of broad policy as well. President Clinton succumbed to their pressure to agree to a seven-year budget-balancing deal with economic projections vetted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Yet when key differences in the budget negotiations over Medicare, Medicaid, and tax cuts narrowed sharply between Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich on Dec. 19, the freshmen yanked Gingrich back from closing the deal. Accepting nothing less than a total win, they branded him a turncoat and insisted the government remain closed. This allowed Clinton major demagoguery of his own--claiming that Republicans were cutting Medicare, not simply trimming its growth rate.
The freshmen's unwillingness to compromise with either the Democrats or their own Senate moderates has led to a total legislative impasse. Their inflexibility, combined with a determination to gut popular environmental protection programs, has led the GOP freshmen to appear to be champions of the fringe, not the mainstream. Impractical and arrogant, the GOP freshmen are on a self-destructive course.
The result? The scorched-earth tactics of shutting down the government twice and pushing the U.S. toward default on its debt have turned off and polarized voters. The polls show that congressional Republicans have fallen into as much disfavor with the electorate as the Democrats. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), godfather to the freshmen class of 1994, is widely disliked, thanks, in part, to the freshmen tactics. Even some corporate CEOs are beginning to worry about GOP extremism.
The GOP freshmen's legislative ineffectuality may turn out to be less of a liability to voters in the November congressional elections than their campaign-finance hypocrisy. Despite talk about changing business-as-usual special-interest politics in Washington, no other freshman class has porked up on PAC money more than the class of 1994. While Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and a handful of others have refused PAC money, virtually everyone else is feeding at the trough.
The need for campaign money explains some of the positions taken by GOP freshmen, particularly those from Western states. While they have been quick to cut funding for welfare mothers and the poor, they have backed government spending for logging, mining, grazing, and farming. These same freshmen have been in the forefront of trying to defund the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Endangered Species Act. Special interests have reciprocated by pouring millions into their campaigns. This kind of political behavior turned off voters in 1994. It may again in 1996.
The GOP freshmen have a small window of opportunity to salvage their reputation. They can start by striking a budget deal. It is by far the most significant piece of legislation on the table. The freshmen should be more practical, less ideological. Ditto for welfare, regulation, and litigation reform. This will give the freshmen a track record of success to run on and counter their current reputation for inflexibility, extremism, and an unseemly appetite for special-interest money.