THIS OLD HOUSE: The U.S. House of Representatives

Tuesday, March 14, 2000

The House of Representatives is a venerable institution, now more than 200 years old. Is the structure of the institution itself appropriate to the demands of our modern, rapidly changing democracy? What reforms did Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress of 1994 make to the House? Were his reforms just partisan fix-it jobs or were they much-needed repairs for the long-term? Is it even possible to make long-term changes to the House?

Recorded on Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge". I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the United States House of Representatives, or, this old House.

The House of Representatives was of course designed by the Founding Fathers in the 18th century. So the question we address is simply this: can an institution that old remain relevant to the needs of a democracy in the 21st century?

With us today, two guests: Nelson Polsby is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on Congress. Newt Gingrich is the former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In 1994, as you may recall, Republicans recaptured control of the House for the first time in 40 years. And then, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, they instituted a number of reforms.

Newt Gingrich and Nelson Polsby will discuss those reforms and wonder whether this old House could still use a little remodeling.

The Insiders' House Rules

In 1994, after taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, Republicans enacted a number of reforms of the institution. We'll come to a few of the specific reforms in a moment. But my first question is this: is the House of Representatives as an institution better today than it was before the Republicans took over?

Nelson Polsby.

Nelson Polsby: I can't answer that question because--my first question to Newt would be: people say to me all the time--

Peter Robinson: Thirty seconds into it, I've lost control. Go ahead, Nelson.

Nelson Polsby: --that's right--was it a revolution? And I don't quite know what to say. What do you say when people ask you, was it a revolution?

Newt Gingrich: My answer was that in the American tradition of peaceful revolutions, it was a small revolution, not a big revolution. But if you end the 61-year federal entitlement to welfare, have a $6 trillion swing in the deficit from deficit to surplus, cut taxes, sunset the chairman at six years, centralize power in the Speaker's office through task forces, put the entire House on the Internet through the Thomas system so any American, anyone in the world, can access the Congress in a way that was never before possible. So at least a tiny revolution.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Premise for the rest of the discussion. I quote Nelson Polsby: the sheer number of members in the House have forced the growth of customary ways of doing things, incomprehensible rituals to outsiders, but absolutely indispensable for the conduct of business. The House is a world all its own.

You two know the special subculture of that very important institution. I, a layman, find it incomprehensible. I seek to be informed. One of the reforms that you just mentioned, Newt, was limiting the terms of committee chairmen to six years, or three terms. Did that have any effect? First of all, what was the purpose of doing that?

Newt Gingrich: It had a series of effects. I mean, the purpose was to say that in an age of dramatic change, having someone chair a committee for 20 or 24 years, which has all sorts of secondary effects--not only are they out of touch, not only are they turf-guarding, because this is their little empire, but in addition, you change who comes into the Congress.

I mean if the Congress is going to have fairly rapid turnover, somebody who is 50 or 60 who has already had a very successful career may decide to become a member as a freshman. In the 19th century that was very common.

Before 1890 half of every Congress were freshmen; half. And people would come in for a couple of terms, work their heart out, and then leave.

Peter Robinson: And you want to resuscitate this trend, or it was already taking place?

Newt Gingrich: No, we clearly changed the rules dramatically.

Peter Robinson: In '94.

Newt Gingrich: And it'll be interesting to see, when the Democrats finally win, which they will eventually, do they keep the rule of term limits, or do they go back to what I think is an archaic model, which is having individual fiefdoms.

The fact was, the committee chairs in the old Congress were too powerful, too isolated, and ran their committees as petty baronies in a way that I think was anti-democratic, small 'd'.

Peter Robinson: But did it not permit a degree of specialization, subject-matter specialization, that was commendable?

Nelson Polsby: Yeah, there are always costs to anything you want to do. The costs are that you can get outgunned by the bureaucracy and by the interest groups.

Peter Robinson: Because the members don't know as much as they did under the old system?

Nelson Polsby: That's right. The tradeoff may be worth making, but it's a tradeoff. You don't get it for free.

Newt Gingrich: But notice the distinction. We're not talking about six-year terms for members. We're saying that if you serve long enough, if you've served on the Ways and Means Committee long enough to be chair, you probably know about as much as you're going to know, and so you've already had--in the current system, the next chair will have served over 20 years in the Congress.

But part of what it does--and this was partly--

Peter Robinson: So it still trickles down according to seniority?

Newt Gingrich: Largely, not totally. When I became Speaker we had three committees whose chairs were not senior, which I handpicked, because I thought they were stronger people, I thought we needed them to run the committees.

Peter Robinson: Was there difficulty over that, or you had so many new members--

Newt Gingrich: There wasn't much difficulty. When we arrived in '94, at the end of '94, we had such a wave of energy and enthusiasm. Remember, we hadn't been a majority in 40 years.

So people were pretty much inclined to go along with the team.

Peter Robinson: Now, you cut three committees, 25 subcommittees, and 600 committee staffers. Did that make any difference?

Newt Gingrich: Right. I think it made the Congress a little leaner. I think that it--part of our goal was to have a Congress which frankly relied more on outside experts. I mean, I think if you watch the rate at which the world is changing, you think about all the things you see around you, to have somebody who has been on Capitol Hill for 20 years as a staff member, as the central source of information, I think is dangerous.

Because the world is too complex, and what you really want the staff to do is network you to the experts in the country at large, and bring in a constant stream of new knowledge, new experience, new testimony. And we did that, for example, when we wrote the Medicare bill. We had well over 70 people who advised us in an ongoing series of meetings, rather than thinking we could find six really brilliant people who could do the whole job.

Peter Robinson: Nelson, you have written lovingly of the institution for ten years.

Nelson Polsby: Well, wait a minute.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Nelson Polsby: In 1970, Congress was significantly underprofessionalized. By the 1990s, they had gone all the way in the other direction. That is they had over-staffed. The staff was taking too many initiatives.

So by the time Newt became Speaker, that particular problem had already been if you like over-solved. And so the net effect was to cut back a little bit, and I think that was probably good.

Peter Robinson: How have changes within the Democratic and Republican Parties affected the House of Representatives?

Fight For Your Right to Party

Nelson, you have made the point several places that 20 or 30 years ago the House Democrats included Southern conservatives and northern liberals, conservatives and liberals in the same party, and at the same time, Republicans in the House included Western and Midwestern conservatives, and a sprinkling of northern liberals. Whereas now the Northeast is overwhelmingly Democratic. The South has become consolidated as Republican territory. The Republicans are now conservative. No liberal Republican--Jim Leach in Iowa, maybe a handful. And Democrats are now liberals. Is that true?

Newt Gingrich: Well, you can't fully say that when you have a John McCain who brings a lot of independents and Democrats to the team, who in fact represents--you know, we have a very real likelihood of keeping seats in New England that you wouldn't expect--

Peter Robinson: In the House you're talking about?

Newt Gingrich: In the House and Senate. I think the Chafee seat, for example, which we'll probably keep. Chafee is in Rhode Island. Jeffords in Vermont. We've got the governor of Massachusetts, the governor of Rhode Island, the governor of Connecticut. There is more underlying Republicanism. You realize, from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, all the way up through that region, you're talking about Republican governors, except for New Hampshire, Maine which is an independent, and Vermont. I mean it's not as monolithic--

Nelson Polsby: Half and half. Same with the South. The Republicans have a majority of House seats in the South, but not all of them.

Peter Robinson: Yes, but you're not going to deny that there has been a difference? That the two party caucuses have become more ideological, have they not?

Newt Gingrich: There's been a transition.

Nelson Polsby: True. No, it's different. It is different.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so my--I'm just driving toward the usual take here, and the usual take is that the House is now too partisan, that--

Nelson Polsby: Party responsibility has reared its ugly head.

Peter Robinson: And it doesn't bother you one bit?

Nelson Polsby: Well, why did I say it that way, I wonder?

Newt Gingrich: First of all, I would argue, in periods of very large change, you have enormous partisanship, because so much is at stake. When one side or the other has won--I mean in the 1950s for example, the New Deal had basically won. It was much easier to be bipartisan. And internationalism against Communism had basically won.

You could put together a bipartisan majority easier because on the two largest issues of the time, there was in fact a general majority.

Peter Robinson: Overarching consensus, national consensus.

Newt Gingrich: National. But when you're in a really intense struggle over control, there is a natural re-partisanizing. We went back and looked at 1910 to 1912, for example, the Democrats became much more partisan as they get close to winning the election of 1912.

And understood that they had to be partisan in order to create this moment of opportunity.

Nelson Polsby: That was a very interesting period--

Peter Robinson: Let's examine how the Republicans created a moment of opportunity in 1994.

The Charge of the Right Brigade

The contract with America. Tip O'Neill, your predecessor Tip O'Neill, famously stated that all politics are local. But in 1994, you put together eight reforms and ten pieces of legislation that you promised to bring to the floor, and nationalized the campaign for 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and it worked. You regained power for the first time in 40 years. What took place? Why was that unique? Why were you not able to do it again two years later?

Newt Gingrich: First of all, O'Neill is wrong. All politics is not local. All politics is personal, not local.

Peter Robinson: Draw that distinction.

Newt Gingrich: When the draft was extended to college students, every college student in the country simultaneously decided they were concerned about Vietnam. It wasn't a Massachusetts versus a California issue. Suburbanites all worry about traffic jams. So there are a whole series of things.

Now they tend to reflect themselves in localisms--this was truer in O'Neill's lifetime when an Irish Catholic neighborhood was remarkably different from an Episcopalian or an Italian or whatever. But I would start with the notion that if you start with the particular, the individual interests, the individual sense of what matters to me, I mean that's how we designed the contract. We were consciously trying to reach people at levels that they would identify with as fitting their values.

We had to jump a lot of seats. We couldn't afford to win a series of incremental campaigns, because the Democrats had more resources. So we had to win one time decisively to get it over with. And that required probably a more bold campaign than you would normally want to run.

Nelson Polsby: I want to go back to the contract. How carefully did you research it? I've read things that said that a lot of in effect consumer research went into the formulation.

Newt Gingrich: We had a very simple set of standards. Everything in the contract had to be popular. It could not split our own base. We didn't include things that we knew would be controversial, beyond the controversies we wanted.

We wanted controversies, for example, overwhelmingly the country wanted welfare reform. Overwhelmingly, the country wanted a balanced budget. There was a much greater pro-tax cut sentiment in 1994, because you just had the Clinton tax increase of '93.

So we had a set of things that we knew--we also had to have the buy-in of every Republican candidate, and we got all but one of them in the country.

Nelson Polsby: How did you find what was popular? Did you do public opinion surveys?

Newt Gingrich: We did a lot of surveying.

Nelson Polsby: Focus groups?

Newt Gingrich: We did focus groups. We did regular surveys. But we also spent--Dick Armey, the conference chairman at that time, spent an immense amount of time, months, talking to members, talking to candidates. We went through meeting after meeting to make sure that this was something people believed in, it was something they would actually do when they were elected, and it was something which would resonate back home.

See, you also had the commonsense test of saying to candidates, are you comfortable on these 10 issues? Can you campaign on these 10 issues?

Nelson Polsby: Did you use the conference a lot more--

Peter Robinson: Explain what the conference is.

Newt Gingrich: The conference is an organization of all the members. It's caucus for the Democrats, conference for Republicans. It is the party meeting together in the House.

Peter Robinson: Every Republican in the House.

Nelson Polsby: And the question is: was the conference more active under your leadership?

Newt Gingrich: Oh, sure. Dramatically. In the first place, you had an extraordinarily more energized party. This was a group of people, I think the people we were most like was actually Henry Clay and the War Hawks, in terms of if you go back and look at popular surges of younger members.

And this was a collective group that was deeply determined to become a majority. So the level of energy we brought into the conference, the level of energy we brought into planning the campaign, the level of energy we brought into campaigning, was unlike probably anything Republicans had seen in modern times.

Peter Robinson: Why were the Republicans unable to repeat their strategy in 1996?

Contract With America II: A House Divided

Why was there no contract two years later, or two years after that?

Newt Gingrich: Well, two years later we hadn't finished the contract. Two years later we did two things that the press never covered very much. One is that we retained control for the first time since 1928, which you would normally have thought was a notable event.

Peter Robinson: The press played it as a loss because you lost a few seats.

Newt Gingrich: Right. And the second was that we were the first time in history that a Democrat had won the presidency and we had won the House.

Peter Robinson: The point that I'm probing for is whether 1994 was an anomaly, it may have been a glorious anomaly, but the notion is, were you henceforward able to nationalize races for the House again and again and again?

Newt Gingrich: I would say it is relatively anomalous in American history. You can cite the War Hawks, and you can cite--and you can correct me if you disagree strongly--maybe the rise of the Jacksonians, the rise of the Republicans in the 1850s, the Progressives after the turn of the century, and what we did.

You can't find--and maybe the Vietnam Democrats--you find relatively few occasions where, partly just by the nature of the institution, trying to figure out how you get all those people together.

Remembering that normally you have a lot of different generations serving in Congress simultaneous. So in a sense they're not technical generations demographically, but psychological generations, people who grew up in different decades, who have different life experiences.

So it's very hard to get them all to agree to anything.

Peter Robinson: So what has happened in the six years since is a kind of reversion to institutional norm? Even the Republicans remain in control. What do you think, Nelson?

Nelson Polsby: Here's the trouble with that as a problem. One of the things that--what's happened since '94, in the electoral realm, has done--has weakened the claim that '94 was all about the contract. And about nationalizing the vote everywhere.

Peter Robinson: And so '94 was instead?

Nelson Polsby: Well, it was a good year for Republicans. You know, that's not unconstitutional. It's written--

Peter Robinson: Just unusual.

Nelson Polsby: It's unusual, but it is not unconstitutional for Republicans to do well.

Newt Gingrich: I think that the only place I disagree with Nelson is that it was a good year for the Republicans which would not have been a majority without some additional energy. I think the contract--I mean we would have gained seats without the contract, but the contract allowed us--I do think it's almost impossible to explain the nine million vote turnout without looking back and realizing that we consciously set out to get that kind of turnout.

Peter Robinson: You buy that?

Nelson Polsby: Yes.

Newt Gingrich: And we consciously ran a positive campaign.

Nelson Polsby: That's the strongest point I think you can make on that side of the issue. But then of course it does raise--

Peter Robinson: Let's turn to the power structure inside the House? How did Newt Gingrich change the role of Speaker?

The Power of Myth

When I was making my way through Poli Sci 101, I was taught that real power in the House lay with the committee chairman. The Speaker had some influence over debate. He could nominate people to this or that committee. But the Speaker wasn't the man who really ran the show; it was the committee chairman.

Along comes Newt Gingrich in 1994, and for some period of time, actually I'd like to discuss how long you felt you were able to keep it up, but for at least a couple of years, he ran the House of Representatives.

Did he redefine the Speakership?

Nelson Polsby: No, he didn't. He exploited stuff that was there. And the reason it was there was because there had been a rather substantial march in that direction under Jim Wright--Wright and O'Neill had the tools; Newt used them vigorously.

Newt Gingrich: I think it's half-true. First of all, O'Neill begins to regather power, and I think does a pretty impressive job of it. Wright was really regathering power. Foley was relatively passive as a replacement, because he never won an election on his own. He had sort of risen as a really nice man that everybody liked, but he didn't have any great instruments of personal power.

Peter Robinson: He never reached for the Speakership and captured it.

Nelson Polsby: Now wait a minute, he had instruments all right. Because what had happened was, the whip systems changed, committee assignments on the Democratic side changed and were basically given into a committee that the Speaker ran.

Peter Robinson: Why? How did these changes happen within the institution?

Nelson Polsby: Well, they happened because there was a lot of support for them, mostly in the Democratic caucus. It was the Democratic caucus which did the first wave--

Peter Robinson: Because ordinary members were getting sick of being pushed around by their chairmen? They'd rather see the Speaker have more power? Is that was was going on?

Newt Gingrich: No, it's very different. The base--this is actually like the medieval structure where you have kings and commoners against the barons.

Nelson Polsby: Now I'm feeling comfortable with this.

Newt Gingrich: Because what happened was, remember, you have a much more liberal base in the Democratic Party in the House in the '70s and '80s. You have relatively conservative chairmen.

Peter Robinson: The Southerners that get seniority.

Newt Gingrich: So the liberals are gradually using their alliance with the Speaker. An easy way to think of this is the following. The key to power in the House is the ability to win control in your own party. If you win control in your own party as a general rule, not quite when you're down to the narrow margins we're at, but as a general rule, when you win control in your party, you win everything, because nobody can effectively beat you.

Nelson Polsby: That tacks very well with I suppose the most famous Democratic manifesto on that subject, which was Dick Bollings book, in which he said the Democratic caucus is doing--

Newt Gingrich: That's right.

Peter Robinson: Is where the action is?

Nelson Polsby: --is the arena. And it was, of course, as long as the Democrats were in the majority.

Newt Gingrich: And as long as there is a self-defining group in the party which is willing to impose its will. So 60 percent of the Democrats, who are a minority of the House but a majority of the caucus were on the left. The Speaker, in order to survive as Speaker, had by definition to be the ally of the 60 percent. Otherwise he wouldn't be Speaker.

Peter Robinson: So it's the king and people against the barons. What changes did you make as Speaker?

Newt Gingrich: Oh, we made lots of changes. In the first place, no Speaker in modern times had taken committee assignment--had assigned chairmen. I mean the very fact that I could assign three chairmen was unthinkable in the traditional House. It would have been unthinkable if I'd asked people to think about it, so I just did it.

Peter Robinson: But because you were viewed as the architect of the victory in 1994--

Newt Gingrich: We had basically about a three, three and a half year half-life, of the ability to sustain that myth. And I mean the fact is that over time--

Peter Robinson: Did you just call it a myth?

Newt Gingrich: Sure, because it is mythical. It's the kind of power granted to you because people think psychologically it's true.

Peter Robinson: So it is all done with smoke and mirrors?

Newt Gingrich: No, no. Myths in anthropology are very powerful systems. I mean "myth" in the anthropological sense in that people endowed me with having been the architect of victory. I mean the architect of victory gets a lot of opportunities.

After about three years, they begin to think, A) I've been badly beaten up, maybe I no longer knew what I was doing. B) they were already elected a majority, so they didn't value nearly as highly the architect of victory.

It's a little bit like Lombardi explaining the first time the Green Bay Packers won and they gave gifts to everybody, they thought it was wonderful. The second time they thought it was adequate. The third time they wondered why they didn't get better gifts.

Peter Robinson: Will the changes made to the institution by Newt Gingrich and the Republicans have lasting effects?

Deep Impact

I'm trying to delineate for this layman the difference between a sort of temporary aberrant, from a Republican point of view, marvelous event, and the permanent institutional changes that have taken place in the House.

Is there some way to get at that question?

Nelson Polsby: Not without seeing what the Democrats do when they get a majority of their own.

Newt Gingrich: Let me make a deeper point, which Dick and Lynn Cheney caught perfectly in their book, Kings of the Hill, which was a great study of people who are powerful. The House is permanently evolving. When you describe permanent institution, there is no permanent institution.

The House is a collectivity which gets together every two years, which adopts its own rules, which can literally remake itself, much more than the Senate which is a continuing body. The Senate really inherits rules. The House literally--a leadership which wants to--for example, we decided we would use the Thomas system and make the Internet available. So anybody watching us can go to the Internet and punch Thomas dot gov, and they can have access to everything being done in the U.S. House. It's an amazing system.

Peter Robinson: All 435 members are reelected every two--

Newt Gingrich: But we literally put that on line the day after I became Speaker, because we decided we'd do it. So a willful majority in any direction, conservative, liberal, pro-technology, anti-technology, the ability of that majority in the House to shape a new institution is stunning.

Now it's mediated over time by a lot of other things. But I think you have to start with the idea, people who are watching us should understand, the House is permanently evolving. It's permanently a little different than it was yesterday morning. And it's this constant process that makes it so fascinating.

Peter Robinson: Nelson, if you could make one additional reform to the House of Representatives today, what reform would it be?

Nelson Polsby: No interest in that at all.

Peter Robinson: Newt?

Newt Gingrich: Human beings have to find ways to mediate power. It is the essence of humans living together as social organisms. The Romans developed a model of republican government. The Founding Fathers studied that model a lot and thought about it a lot. They were really concerned about how to mediate power.

The House as an institution, whether you do it by quill pen on paper, whether you do it with a typewriter, whether you do it on the Internet, the House as an institution for bringing together the elected representatives of 270 million people, forcing them into one room, making them look at each other--I'm opposed to letting the House vote from a distance. You need the biological impact.

And then having to walk across the building to meet with the Senators, an event no House member cherishes. And then having to go down to the White House to fight with the president of either--it doesn't matter whether it's your party or the other party. It is the nature of the constitutional system, that presidents and congresses fight.

And then knowing that there are nine people across the street who may mess it all up by deciding as a Supreme Court that what you did wasn't right. That complex mechanism is as valuable today as it was in 1789, and has been changed not a whit in its core principles by the technologies that surround it.

Nelson Polsby: The hard sell for people who don't think about this stuff too much has to do with the fundamental values of representative democracy as opposed to just voting. Representative democracy has some costs; that is, some people don't get what they wanted. But it's equally true that if you just voted, not everybody would get what they wanted either.

But for some reason, whenever people feel really badly about not getting what they want from representative democracy, they begin to think, well, maybe it isn't democracy. But I think it is.

Peter Robinson: Nelson Polsby, Newt Gingrich, thank you very much.

The House of Representatives may have been designed more than two centuries ago, but as Newt Gingrich and Nelson Polsby pointed out, all its members are reelected every two years. So the institution is never more than 24 months away from a touchup.

I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.