The House Freshmen

GOP newcomers are determined to reshape government. Are they building a new America-or tearing it apart?

For weeks, Republicans pursuing a balanced-budget deal with President Clinton had taken a pummeling in the polls over their scorched-earth campaign to shutter the federal government. But as House Speaker Newt Gingrich left a White House negotiating session on Dec. 19, he saw cause for optimism. With key differences narrowing, Clinton and GOP leaders had agreed to reopen the padlocked agencies. Budgetary peace seemed at hand.

Not for long. Soon after he returned to Capitol Hill, Gingrich ran into the buzz saw known as the House Republican freshman class. The feisty first-termers forced him to scuttle plans to unlock the government, and they demanded that House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.)--considered more ideologically pure than Gingrich--accompany the Speaker to future talks. "We needed someone who was going to hold the line," says Representative Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), a freshman member of the House GOP leadership.

Gingrich's about-face is but one example of the extraordinary influence wielded by the 74 GOP freshmen. By virtue of their size, cohesion, and insistence on a literal enactment of the Contract With America, the first-termers are shaking Washington to its core.

Already, they have pushed policy sharply rightward, in the process raising partisan combat to new heights. They have muscled political reforms past their own skeptical leaders. They prodded Clinton to accept a seven-year balanced-budget timetable based on strict Congressional Budget Office economic projections. And they have surprised even their business backers with a die-hard defense of their conservative principles in a town more comfortable with pragmatic dealmaking. "I wish we had 30 more of them, in both houses of Congress," says Carol L. Ball, CEO of Ball Publishing in Greenville, Ohio. "Then maybe we could get something done."

STEADY COURSE. In an institution accustomed to freshmen who were seen but rarely heard, this new crop has demonstrated unprecedented clout. Clearly, the fervor of the freshmen is the driving force behind the bold Republican plans for remaking government. Yet the man-the-barricades approach of the first-termers--a penchant for confrontation over compromise--has prevented them from implementing most of their vaunted Contract. Indeed, a public backlash against their hardball tactics threatens to stall their revolution just as they are on the threshold of success with their paramount priority: balancing the federal budget by 2002. A BUSINESS WEEK/Harris Poll of 755 adults conducted Jan. 5-8 found that only 26% of Americans approved of the freshman Republicans' tactics, while 70% disapproved.

Public perception be damned. So far, the freshmen show no signs of changing course. Many are intent on a hard-line legislative agenda for '96--including abortion restrictions, an assault on environmental rules, dismantling the federal social safety net, and a repeal of 1993 assault-weapons curbs. The strategic risk: that the first-termers could alienate centrist swing voters and lose control of the House after a two-year reign. "`My way or no way,' could bring a premature end to the Republican majority," says Brookings Institution congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann.

Even some of the corporate chieftains who cheered the Republican takeover of Congress a year ago haven't lost their enthusiasm. "I'm disturbed because I think they've carried ideology too far," says H. Brian Thompson, CEO of LCI International Inc., a McLean (Va.)-based long-distance telephone company. "Not that the ideology is wrong--but you don't have to do it in one bite." Other executives chide the freshmen for gleefully throwing sand in the gears of government to achieve their budget priorities. "They need to change their rhetoric," says Andrew P. Daly, CEO of Vail Associates Inc., which operates the venerable Colorado ski resort. "I'm ill at ease when you hold government hostage."

Democrats are betting such discomfort will help them recapture the House they lost in 1994 after four decades of dominance. "We owe them a great deal," quips Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "Their views are unpopular. And their methods are inept." House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) describes the new class as "terrorists" with an "insane" agenda. Former House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), a 33-year House veteran, dismisses them as "wild and reckless" legislators lacking empathy for the downtrodden. And Clinton is expected to play on public fears of GOP stridency in his Jan. 23 State of the Union address.

The newcomers contend that their achievements will become evident only over the long haul. "The tough work of freedom is going to take time," says Representative Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "We're dealing with a very sick patient, and you can't wake him up in the middle of surgery and ask how he's doing." Moreover, the freshmen believe voters endorsed their tough tactics by electing them on the vow to enact the Contract. "We know why we were sent here, and we will act regardless of the consequences," insists Representative David Funderburk (R-N.C.). "If there is a price, so be it. There'll never be another opportunity like this in our lifetime."

Maybe so. But the unwillingness of the new class to compromise with the White House and Senate moderates has limited its accomplishments. Aside from some congressional reforms, such as reducing staff and eliminating some committees, the freshmen have yet to deliver a balanced budget, tax cuts, regulatory relief, term limits, and litigation reform. Concedes Representative Phil English (R-Pa.): "We have to do more before we declare victory."

"LIKE TEENAGERS." As the largest freshman class since the Democratic "Watergate Babies" of 1974 prepares to face the voters this fall, its legacy remains unclear. "The freshmen are the testosterone of the House Republicans," says Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. "Testosterone adds muscle mass, but in excess it can lead to overaggressiveness and health problems."

Judging by early polls, some freshmen could suffer terminal side effects from their pugnacity. Although the BUSINESS WEEK/Harris Poll found that 49% of Americans see the first-termers as "a new breed of politicians," 45% consider them "extremists." That view is reflected at the grass roots. "They're acting like teenagers, and I'm just sick of it," says Chad Bosworth, 20, a junior at Indiana's Ball State University. "It's high time for these young whippersnappers to wipe their noses and get down to business," scoffs Polly Elkins, president of the Cherokee Democratic Women's Club in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Other Americans are willing to give the first-termers more time to mature. "The freshmen represent the views that are going to turn this country around," says Ted H. Smith, an Oklahoma City stockbroker with Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. "They're doing what they had said they would do." Jeffrey T. Grade, chairman of Harnischfeger Industries Inc., a Milwaukee heavy-machinery maker, feels that the freshmen "are acting like the rest of America--tired of business as usual. They are inexperienced and unskilled, but maybe that's what we need."

One key booster: Texas tycoon Ross Perot, who finds a natural kinship with their maverick ways. The GOP tyros have "a deep commitment to putting our country's house back in order," Perot says. "Most have shown great courage and tenacity in working to get the job done right."

Any way you look at it, the new class represents a sharp departure from its predecessors. In a chamber dominated by lawyers, most of the newcomers have been small-business owners or corporate executives. They speak the language of commerce and are evangelistic about the desire to slash taxes, regulations, and paperwork. "We're not extremists," says Michael P. Forbes (R-N.Y.) "We were meeting payrolls, paying bills, and getting fed up with Washington. And we decided to do something about it."

Few of the freshmen are government careerists--only 27 have previous legislative experience. Several are celebrities, including former pop singer Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) and football stars Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.).

CONTRACT WORKERS. While a handful describe themselves as moderate or pro-choice, most are unabashed pro-life conservatives with close ties to religious activists--47 had strong support from Christian conservatives. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming number favor abortion restrictions, prayer in schools, and taxpayer vouchers for religious academies.

Regionally, the 74 rookies shifted the GOP balance of power to the South and West from its traditional center in the Northeast and Midwest. Only 11 hail from the Northeast--the stronghold of moderate Republicanism--while 45 come from the Sun Belt. They picked Roger F. Wicker of Tupelo, Miss., as class president. This regional tilt explains their emphasis on states' rights, opposition to gun control, and support for private development of public lands.

The political profile of the freshman class should not be surprising, considering that most were recruited by Gingrich and his conservative associates at GOPAC, the political committee he ran from 1986 to 1995. After locating his new disciples, Gingrich gave them issue briefings, fund-raising help, and strategic advice, and lent a hand scripting their assaults on liberal Democrats and the "corrupt welfare state."

But the factor that made the freshmen a singular force was the Contract With America. The 10-point manifesto became a political bible for the new lawmakers. One, North Carolina's Myrick, pinned a laminated copy of it to her lapel when she arrived on the Hill. During the first hundred days of Republican rule, freshmen resisted attempts to water down the Contract and voted with the leadership 99% of the time. "Maybe I'm crazy or maybe I'm dumb to say: When you make a promise to somebody, keep the promise," says Oklahoma's Watts.

While many of the freshmen owe their careers to Gingrich, the Speaker in many ways owes his iron gavel to his recruits. The former enfant terrible of the House GOP rewarded freshmen allies by placing them on powerful committees, and they responded by making sure the party's Old Bulls remained unwavering in their fealty to the Contract.

This symbiotic relationship with Gingrich gives first-termers unprecedented leverage over senior Republicans. When House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) kicked freshman Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.) off the defense subcommittee on Oct. 11 for the sin of refusing to back the panel's military-spending agreement, the rookies rebelled. At a meeting on Gingrich's balcony, freshmen noted that two senior Republicans, Larry Combest of Texas and Bill Emerson of Missouri, were not disciplined when they joined with Democrats to sink leadership-backed farm-spending cuts. Gingrich agreed to compromise; Neumann would leave Appropriations for another plum assignment, the Budget Committee.

How can a group of newcomers exert such sway over the most powerful figure on Capitol Hill? For one thing, their numbers. With a bloc of 74 votes--and 50 hard-core conservatives among them--the freshmen have enough nays to sink any proposals they oppose.

Just as important is their internal cohesiveness. The class meets every Tuesday afternoon, usually in a subterranean chamber under the west front of the Capitol. The agenda is a mixture of policy and politics, including floor strategy, issues briefings, exchanges of polling data, and discussions of reelection races. Their "federalist" bloc is drafting proposals to turn over more Washington programs to cities and states. And to counter Democratic charges that they are inflexible hotheads, they've created six "tiger teams" to peddle their message to the media. "We want to separate fact from fiction," says Oklahoma's Largent, a team captain.

NEWT'S SNUB. Freshmen also are part of the formal GOP leadership structure. Two are subcommittee chairs--a rare honor for newcomers--and Myrick and fellow frosh David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.) attend top-level strategy sessions as class reps. "Senior members are the last people to be conferred with now," crows Wamp. "We are the first."

That cocky attitude has helped the freshmen score some triumphs on the House floor. One was an effort by Rick White (R-Wash.) to broker a compromise to regulate smut on the Internet. White, whose district is home to Microsoft Corp., deftly bridged differences between family-values advocates concerned about cyberporn and businesses worried about potential criminal liability.

The freshmen also forced reluctant GOP leaders to tighten lobbying rules and limit lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers. At a November meeting in Gingrich's office, the newcomers rejected offers by Gingrich and Armey to schedule votes on reform proposals in early 1996. Led by Representatives Linda Smith (R-Wash.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), they demanded immediate action. Privately, Gingrich considers the reforms marginal. But warned that his stance would alienate Perot independents, he heeded the freshmen. "We're not waiting in line for our turn to speak," says Smith. "Most of us aren't going to be [on the Hill] for very long."

Other freshmen projects have been more divisive. Among them: a proposal by McIntosh and three-termer Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) to limit lobbying by liberal groups receiving federal grants. GOP moderates buried the plan in the Senate. And the frosh irked party elders by pressing to kill off the Commerce Dept., new B-2 bombers, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and government subsidies to tobacco farmers.

Most of the time, Gingrich condones freshman freelancing. Representative Mark A. Foley (R-Fla.), who questioned Gingrich's controversial book deal with a publishing house owned by Rupert Murdoch, says Gingrich never retaliated. "He respects me for being open and honest," says Foley.

Personal jabs are one thing. But the Speaker is growing impatient with freshmen who desert him on crucial votes. On Jan. 9, he disciplined three of them for voting against his compromise plan to reopen the government. The punishment: He backed out of appearances at mid-January fund-raisers.

Have the freshmen learned a lesson? Not yet. McIntosh condemns Gingrich's "outrageous" action. "He has to stop this crybaby attitude with people who don't agree with him," he complains. Democrats are watching with glee. Gingrich "created this monster," says Representative Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.). "Now he has to deal with it."

Given public opposition to their guerrilla tactics, many of the freshmen may not be back next year. Some 44 of the 74--largely those who won narrow victories on Democratic turf--face risky to almost impossible reelection races (map, page 27). Even during a Republican landslide, 43 of them took less than 55% of the vote. Clinton carried 33 of their districts in '92. And nine represent areas won by both Clinton and 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis. "These people are from districts that are not as conservative as they are," says Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier. "A lot of them are vulnerable."

What's more, about a dozen freshmen have been damaged by scandal or foot-in-mouth disease. The top dud: Enid G. Waldholtz of Utah, whose financial dealings and marital breakup are an ongoing political soap opera.

The tenuous grip of many freshmen has helped Democrats recruit top-flight challengers. Oklahoma House Speaker Glen Johnson is taking on freshman Tom A. Coburn. Debbie Stabenow, a former Michigan state senator, is going after freshman Dick Chrysler. And former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Steve Owens has set his sights on J.D. Hayworth, an ex-TV sportscaster dubbed Rush Jr. because of his resemblance to the conservative talk show host.

Even the most optimistic Republican strategists concede that the party won't repeat its '94 record of zero incumbent defeats. But because of likely Democratic setbacks in the South, neutral observers say that 30 rookies must fall for the GOP to lose the House. Republican operatives insist that fewer than a dozen freshmen are in deep trouble. The big reason? Money.

MODERATION. Despite their promise to change business as usual in Washington, the freshmen have tapped the D.C. money machine for nearly $5 million during their first six months in office--the most cash ever raised by first-termers from political action committees. The bulging war chests have intimidated some would-be Democratic challengers.

The freshmen also are bolstered by continuing support from Perot's new Reform Party, which plans to endorse major-party congressional candidates in '96 while fielding its own White House hopeful. In 1994, Perot backers favored GOP House candidates by 2 to 1. And Perot sees no reason why that will change this year: "They certainly can expect a huge amount of support from independent voters," he says.

But even Perot's blessing won't rescue the rookies if they don't score some big policy victories, including a budget deal, welfare reform, and a campaign-finance overhaul. "The biggest risk is that the public perception of gridlock will hurt the Republicans in the fall," says Pitney.

Indeed, some endangered freshmen are starting to get the message. Flexibility that doesn't sacrifice bedrock principle is their new byword. They're trying to develop a bipartisan budget deal with moderate and conservative Democrats led by Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.).

While individual freshmen realize they must make some compromises, the class as a whole is not yet ready to yield on sticky issues such as welfare, Medicare restructuring, and tax cuts. "Some of them still operate on the assumption that only they have been to the top of the mountain and seen the promised land," jabs House moderate Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.).

Moderates may well remain frustrated with the revolutionaries. Despite warnings from the center, many freshmen say they would rather try and fail than cut deal after deal with liberal Democrats. That could be a path to political self-destruction. After the Republicans' skillful '94 campaign, voters gave them a historic opportunity to change the direction of Washington. But unless these raw revolutionaries begin to develop a depth of political maturity soon, they risk becoming nothing more than a colorful but short-lived episode in American history.