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Learning from Newt

How Democrats can overthrow the House.

Early last year, a Democratic representative named Chris Bell decided it was time someone really went after Tom DeLay. Like many of his Democratic colleagues, Bell had come to believe that DeLay, a fellow Texan, was not just a tyrannical House majority leader, but that his pursuit of power had led him to trample House ethics rules. So Bell drafted a complaint that amounted to a long rap sheet against DeLay, charging him with selling legislative favors to energy company lobbyists, illegally using corporate donations, and pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration to track a planeful of Texas Democrats mixed up in a state legislative dispute. But, when Bell filed his complaint, he found that, however much his Democratic colleagues railed against DeLay, they were nervous about taking him on. “Privately, it was ‘You're my hero,’” he sighs. “But no one wanted to be publicly supportive. When we looked for people to make public declarations, it was awfully quiet.” Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi were quick to tell reporters that they had not encouraged Bell's action.

Bell was only a freshman, and he was learning an important fact about today's House Democrats. While they may boil with outrage at the actions of House Republican leaders, there are limits to what they are willing to do. Many Democrats, especially older ones with memories of a more civil time in Washington, are squeamish about flamethrower politics. For seven years, they had observed an informal ethics “truce" with Republicans, and they were loath to shatter it.

Today, Bell stands vindicated on both substantive and political grounds. Substantively because, last fall, the House Ethics Committee wound up admonishing DeLay on two of the three charges Bell leveled. Politically, because Bell's complaint landed a body blow against the GOP leadership, which suffered a fusillade of public outrage and negative press when—in obvious response to Bell's complaint—it tried to loosen the House's ethics rules last week to make such complaints harder to file. (The ending was not so happy for Bell himself, who was redistricted out of his seat last year.)

The chaos among Republicans over ethics was sweet relief to House Democrats, whose victories in recent years have been few and far between. While Republicans comprise a mere 53 percent of the House, they afford the House's 201 Democrats virtually zero power. Although Republicans promised to bring glasnost to the House when they toppled a heavy-handed Democratic majority in 1994, today they rule with an iron fist. Floor debates are kept to a bare minimum. Democrats have almost no role in writing legislation and are rarely allowed to offer amendments, even when—especially when—their proposals enjoy majority support. Republicans think nothing of ramming through huge bills that have just come back from the printer. “It's crazy what's going on here,” says Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “Christ, you've got bills coming to the floor that no one reads.” Republicans sometimes treat Democrats as if they don't really belong in the House at all. In one defining 2003 moment, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, doing his best impersonation of an East German commissar, actually summoned the Capitol Police after a dispute over procedural fairness led Democrats to walk out of a hearing. Things have gotten so bad that even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led these Republicans to power a decade ago, has urged them to “loosen up” the legislative process and allow Democrats more say.

The problem for Democrats is that House rules—which include no show-stopping equivalent to the Senate filibuster—inherently limit their power. And so Democrats are left continually vowing to fine-tune their message and, in some vague and unspecific way, to “fight harder.” After the disheartening 2004 election, in which Republicans furthered their House majority (thanks in part to the cynical DeLay-led Texas redistricting scheme that made a casualty out of Chris Bell), the call was dutifully issued once again.

Let the message gurus recalibrate and the bold thinkers brainstorm new ideas. But, with Republicans preparing an assault on Social Security, the program Democrats hold most dear, it may be time for drastic measures. That is to say, as long as Republicans deprive Democrats of any parliamentary power, Democrats should consider fighting back by extra-parliamentary means—going beyond the standard parameters of legislative debate and attacking Republicans not just on issues but on ethics, character, and their management of Congress itself. In other words, it may be time for Democrats to burn down the House in order to save it. “I believe that the Republican majority has acted in such a dictatorial fashion that a full-scale revolt is the only solution,” says Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson, who has been a House aide and executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “It's hard to compromise with somebody who has their heel on your neck.” Adds an aide to a senior House Democrat: “Beneath the surface, you're seeing an almost desperate anxiety among Democrats to throw some punches. The challenge is: How do you organize it?”

For answers, Democrats might look to an unlikely role model: Newt Gingrich.

GINGRICH ARRIVED IN Congress from Georgia in 1979 at the height of an entrenched House Democratic majority. Gingrich had no illusions about working with Democrats to tinker at the margins of public policy. Instead, he set out to overthrow the Democratic leadership. Indeed, one of his first acts in Washington was to ask party leaders who was in charge of plotting long-term strategy for House regime change. After being told there was no such person, Gingrich assumed the role himself.

There were, of course, many factors behind the Gingrich revolution that would topple the Democrats 15 years later. But there is one that today's Democrats could replicate: Gingrich's knack for ruthless, all-out partisan warfare—even if it means turning public opinion against Congress as an institution and offending leaders of their own party.

This strategy was simple enough. As Gingrich put it in 1992, until the “systemic problem” of the House was ended, “we will simply go through cycles of finding corruption, finding a scapegoat, eliminating the scapegoat, and relaxing until we find the next scandal.” Gingrich didn't care that Republican leaders of the time found him uncouth—just as senior Democrats were wary of Chris Bell's ethics crusade. “Be gentlemanly, and once you've made your point, get on with the business of governing,” was the motto of Bob Michel, then the House GOP leader. But, in Gingrich's view, gentlemen were political losers.

One of Gingrich's core insights was that the press loves ungentlemanly conduct. “The number-one fact about the news media,” he once explained, “is that they love fights. When you give them confrontations, you get attention”—a rule that undoubtedly holds true to this day. Gingrich also understood that no confrontation gets more ink than a nasty, personal one. As The Washington Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz, would later write, “Gingrich filled ... the need for a colorful combatant who could be counted on to denounce the ruling Democrats in the harshest terms.”

The conclusion Gingrich correctly drew was that a well-orchestrated media campaign could bring down even the most powerful Democratic leader—which could begin the downfall of the entire Democratic majority. By the mid-'80s, he had chosen as his first target no less a figure than the House speaker himself, Jim Wright, whose personal finances were the subject of rumors and innuendo. For months, Gingrich hounded the Washington press corps and editorial boards around the country with every scrap of information he could find to support his (highly quotable) claim that Wright was “the least ethical speaker in this century.” The relentlessness of Gingrich's pursuit became a story of its own, as chronicled in John Barry's The Ambition and the Power, an exhaustively detailed 1989 account of Wright's rise and fall:

Wherever Gingrich traveled for a speech ... he would talk about corruption in the House, and the corruption of Jim Wright. He told his audiences to write letters to the editors of their local newspapers, to call in on talk shows, to demand answers from their local Congressmen in public meetings, What are you doing about Jim Wright? ... He sought out local political investigative reporters or editorial writers, and urged them to look into Wright. Perhaps the local paper would write an editorial condemning the way Jim Wright ran the House, or, better yet, about corruption in the House, or about Wright himself. Perhaps local reporters would raise the issue with local congressmen. Perhaps they would write about Wright's affairs.

Though Gingrich's initial charges were thin, the drumbeat he started led to the 1987 revelation of an unseemly book-publishing deal that benefited Wright. The dollar stakes were relatively small—about $50,000—and there was no apparent legislative quid pro quo. But, thanks to the environment of suspicion Gingrich had so laboriously created, Wright was effectively finished; he resigned in 1989. The moral of the story: Prophesizing a downfall can be self- fulfilling.

Wright's fall lent credence to Gingrich's argument that Congress was a corrupt institution—and that only the coarse cleansing agent of reformist Republicans could salvage it. Crucially, Gingrich also wove larger themes into this argument—namely, the failure of a bloated “welfare state” the Democrats had created. But Gingrich depended on the institutional micro-scandals he was creating to get across his larger themes.

Going after individuals wasn't enough. Gingrich needed to wage a campaign against Congress itself, to convince voters it was one huge toilet that needed to be flushed—taking the Democratic majority along with it. He hammered at issues like pay raises and term limits to show that Congress was out of touch. And he convinced the public that the House itself was a corrupt institution. He hinted, without evidence, that a staffer in the House post office had sold cocaine. And, in 1991, he conjured a major political scandal almost out of nothing: the House bank affair. After a federal audit found that congressmen were routinely overdrawing their accounts from a House-managed bank without penalty, Gingrich turned what amounted to small, interest-free loans to members into a national story. Gingrich's sicced a group of GOP freshmen known as “the Gang of Seven” on the story. The gang fought to release the name of every member who had committed an overdraft—even if it meant embarrassing important Republicans (including Gingrich, who himself had 22 overdrafts). The damage inflicted on Democratic leaders would be worth the price. Republicans pounded the story with the same theatrical flair with which Gingrich had hounded Wright. One Gang of Seven member, Jim Nussle, even appeared on the House floor with a brown paper bag over his head to illustrate the Democrats' attempts to conceal the names of offending members.

Nussle may have looked foolish, but such antics hurt the entire House's image—which is just what Gingrich wanted. By the spring of 1992, a New York Times/CBS poll found that a mere 17 percent of respondents approved of Congress's performance, which, as the Times duly noted, was “the lowest level ever.” The banking scandal became a driving issue in the 1992 elections, and public disgust (combined with the retirement of several members who felt that congressional service was, as The New York Times put it, “much less attractive than it used to be”) led to the highest turnover of House seats since 1948. Despite the coattails of Bill Clinton's election, Republicans managed to pick up ten seats in the House.

Gingrich wasn't just good at bringing down his enemies—he also had a knack for blowing up legislation (see Ryan Lizza, “Hardball 101,” page 15). As with his attacks on Democratic leaders, Gingrich could create outrages almost from scratch. For instance, when the Clinton administration proposed a crime bill in the summer of 1994, House Republicans detested its gun-control provisions. But, rather than fight on those grounds, GOP members, led by Gingrich, ingeniously seized upon some egregious pork in the bill and accused Democrats of misusing money that should go to law enforcement. Most memorably, Republicans pounced on funding for so-called “midnight basketball”—a well-established program once promoted by George H.W. Bush—and cast it as wacky “social spending” that coddled thugs who probably belonged in jail. Gingrich also threw up his usual smoke, blithely proclaiming that the Clinton bill would “release over 10,000 drug dealers who are currently in prison,” even though it would do no such thing.

Democrats fumed. Representative David Obey of Wisconsin grumbled that Republicans “would rather embarrass the majority than move the consensus; they will do whatever is necessary to deny Clinton a political victory.” And, to the very end, House Republican leader Bob Michel complained about Gingrich's tactics, grousing just before his retirement about House members who liked “trashing the institution.”

Gingrich may not have been popular among the House's old bulls. But, by the fall of 1994, it didn't matter. Republicans picked up a stunning 52 House seats. Gingrich, once considered a taboo-breaking maniac, would become the first Republican House speaker in 40 years.

A DECADE AFTER Republicans shattered their majority, many Democrats still think like David Obey. They view their GOP foes as crude barbarians who defile the House's historic dignity. But there is a growing sentiment among Democrats that it is time to stop scorning the Gingrich revolutionaries—and the DeLay reactionaries who have inherited Newt's legacy—and start imitating them. Chris Bell, for instance, told me that he had plowed through all 768 pages of The Ambition and The Power as he prepared his complaint against DeLay, looking for inspiration from Gingrich's tactics. “The parallels are striking,” he says. “It seems the Republicans are now guilty of all the abuses they were complaining about at the time.”

If turnabout is fair play, then Democrats should charge ahead on GOP ethics. The list of credible charges against leading Republicans is beginning to look like a Washington version of Tony Soprano's rap sheet. In addition to the Ethics Committee's three recent admonishments of DeLay, there's good reason to think GOP leaders tried to bribe Representative Nick Smith into voting for a Medicare bill in exchange for contributions to his son's House campaign. Another investigation is currently underway into whether House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney did a legislative favor for the spectacularly disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for campaign contributions and a $50,000 golf junket to Scotland. Democrats are understandably scandalized over former House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin's recent hiring as the pharmaceutical industry's top lobbyist little more than a year after he authored a prescription-drug bill that was enormously favorable to drug companies. And those are just the greatest hits. Other galling episodes have already been forgotten—such as the way GOP Whip Roy Blunt was caught slipping an undebated pro-tobacco provision into a budget bill. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Blunt's son and his wife are both tobacco lobbyists.)

No doubt aware of their vulnerability, Republicans have made it more difficult for Democrats to initiate ethics investigations. A new rule passed last week requires an ethics committee majority to start one, which effectively lets Republicans block future Democratic complaints. But, as Bell notes, that should just embolden Democrats. “That in and of itself is the story,” Bell says. “The ethics process of the House is what the Democrats should be talking about.”

It's true. As Gingrich showed, ethics fights have a critical media dimension. Yet it's a lesson that still seems lost on House Democrats. After three top fund-raisers linked to DeLay were indicted last fall for the improper use of corporate campaign donations, for instance, you'd think Democrats would have sprinted for the microphones to fuel the story. But their reaction was curiously muted. A Post story the following day noted that “House Democratic leaders were reluctant to pile on DeLay publicly.” Why? Because Democrats—as part of their endless cycle of retooling their message—were unveiling a new legislative agenda that same day and hoped to focus press attention on it. Unsurprisingly, the media largely ignored the Democrats' bland manifesto and instead fixated on the DeLay story, yet with precious few quotes from Democrats. Gingrich, of course, would never have taken a day off from prosecuting his case against Wright. If Democrats want to keep Republicans on the defensive, they shouldn't, either.

House Democrats have also shown a certain lack of imagination when it comes to ginning up headline-grabbing outrages like the House bank scandal. One Democratic aide, for instance, suggests that his party pounce on the fact that the price tag for a new underground visitors' center at the U.S. Capitol has more than doubled to over half a billion dollars. (“No one's overseeing it!” he cracks with mock outrage. “It's a veritable Taj Mahal!”) Washington Representative Adam Smith concurred. “What kind of issue do you think that would be if it was 1992?" Smith asked. “How much would Newt Gingrich be talking about it? How much would Rush Limbaugh be talking about it? We've got to grab those issues and jam them as much as possible.”

The GOP Congress offers plenty of other opportunities. Consider junkets. Last year, a study found that private interests spent $14 million to fund more than 4,000 congressional trips since 2000. Sure, plenty of Democrats were implicated—Barney Frank was one of the House's top offenders. But many Republicans, including Gingrich, were implicated in the House bank scandal. Gingrich understood that you can't fight a war without risking casualties. (And don't doubt the outrage-value of junkets; indulgent travel is widely blamed for the surprise defeat last fall of veteran Illinois Republican Phil Crane.)

The same goes for pork-barrel spending. Despite the budget deficit, Congress—a conservative Republican Congress, remember—set an all-time record last year by spending over $23 billion on pork projects, according to a study by the Heritage Foundation. Surely there are millions of erstwhile Ross Perot voters waiting to be whipped up by this outrage. Yet Democrats rarely attack pork—once again, no doubt, because they are themselves implicated.

Finally, there is the Gingrichian art of using minor provisions to blow bills out of the water. One such opportunity came last November, when Democrats discovered that Republicans had slipped a provision into a massive end-of-the- year budget bill granting any congressman or designated staffer the power to look at individual tax returns. Republicans claimed the provision was benign, and it may have been. But Democrats should have designated a swat team to spend the next month talking about nothing but the Republicans' creepy Big Brother ploy. Instead, they spent a couple of days offering up obligatory outrage—but the story was really driven more by the persistent blogging of Joshua Micah Marshall than by any Democratic press offensive.

Democrats could weave individual outrages like these into a broader theme of accountability. They might argue that 1980s-style permanent incumbency has returned to the House, where just two of 435 non-redistricted incumbents were defeated last November, and where nearly a third as many members have died in office (eight) since the 2000 election as have been voted out (25). That lack of accountability has allowed Republicans to become co-opted by Washington, allowing ethics to slide, pork to multiply, deficit spending to explode. Why, those arrogant Republicans can't even build a visitors' center without wasting hundreds of millions of dollars!

TOTAL WAR AGAINST the House GOP would also require a new killer instinct when it comes to floor battles. Some Democrats cling to a quaint desire to “work with” their moderate Republican colleagues. But such partnerships typically do more harm than good. For instance, it was an amendment sponsored by ultra-liberals Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders that added an instant $300 rebate to the first of George W. Bush's tax cuts. Of course, the checks went out with a letter crediting Bush—making it seem like they were his idea and swelling support for his policy. Democratic amendments can also help vulnerable GOP moderates looking for bipartisan cover back in their own districts. “Democrats will [team up] with moderate Republicans like Chris Shays or Rob Simmons, and these guys go back to Connecticut and say, ‘Well, I worked with my [Democratic] friend Carolyn Maloney,’ and no one blames him for voting with DeLay,” says a House legislative aide “We have to stop legislating. They end up stripping out this stuff in conference anyway.” Republicans will be especially desperate for such Democratic cover when it comes to Social Security. It's time for Democrats to adopt George W. Bush's motto: You're either with us or against us.

Of course, that will require intense party discipline. Here Democrats could learn something from the current House GOP leadership, which last week announced that it was ousting House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher Smith merely because he complained about proposed cuts in veterans spending. By contrast, at virtually the same time, Democrats announced that their new ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee would be Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson—one of the most Republican-friendly Democrats in the House. In 2003, Peterson cast a heretical vote for the GOP prescription-drug bill. He has often failed to pay his caucus dues and has even been the subject of recent party-switching rumors. Democratic leaders gave him the prized committee post anyway, claiming that he had promised to be a “team player” in the future. “Democrats are wimpy about holding each other accountable,” grouses one House Democratic leadership aide. “There's always a lot of talk ... but there are no repercussions.”

Finally, Democrats should reconsider their parliamentary options. While they enjoy nothing comparable to the filibuster power of senators, Democrats can bring the House to a temporary crawl for a day or so at a time via constant procedural votes. Some Democrats complain that party leaders don't pursue such nettlesome tactics for the simple reason that they're inconvenient. For instance, during the infamous 2003 Medicare vote, which House Republicans staged in the middle of the night, when few reporters were awake to see them browbeat holdout members, some Democrats proposed calling for delaying votes to extend the politically vital debate—which began past midnight on a Friday—through the weekend, creating a newsworthy surprise for the media and forcing Republicans to twist arms by the light of day. “But everyone complained about plans, schedules, and plane tickets,” says a Democratic staffer. Something similar had happened earlier that year, when Pelosi, responding to a series of particularly egregious GOP diktats, promised to inflict “a week from hell” upon the House. But apparently Pelosi's fellow Democrats weren't so enthusiastic about constant votes at odd hours, and the promised onslaught amounted to just a handful of delays. “The crass reality is that the members' own convenience trumps” such tactics, says the Democratic aide.

IT'S NOT JUST convenience holding Democrats back. Some argue that radical tactics in 1994 mattered less than early Clinton administration debacles like gays in the military and health care, as well as the assault-weapons ban, which wildly energized conservative voters. “If you go back and really analyze '94, [Republicans] never convinced anyone but their base,” says Democrat Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chairman of the dccc. “Their base showed up and ours didn't, and that's what flipped it.” Perhaps. But it's also possible that a relentless Gingrichian attack on Social Security reform—coupled with broadsides against the GOP's stewardship of Congress—could conjure a similar perfect storm in 2006.

Democrats also fear, understandably, that militant tactics will get them branded as obstructionists. The defeat of Senator Tom Daschle, who was savaged for blocking the Bush agenda, suggests that red-state Democrats could pay dearly. But Democrats may well have to make short-term sacrifices in the name of long-term gains. Gingrich's House bank crusade cost some Republicans their seats—but the party won a majority a few years later. And the recent entrenchment of incumbency through gerrymandering suggests that only a national tide sparked by bold action—and not cautious, incremental gains—can return the Democrats to power.

Perhaps most significantly, there's a strong psychological resistance among Democrats to burning down the House. Many senior Democrats, especially those who came of age in gentler political times, believe in a civics-class tradition of governing. “What [the Gingrich years] were about was truly very destructive in terms of the institution of Congress itself,” says Rosa DeLauro, a member of the House Democratic leadership. “We come here to create good public policy. We don't come here to destroy the institution, we try to make it work, and work better.” Adds Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern: “I worked as a staffer before becoming a congressman, and I have great respect for this place. And there isn't a day I don't feel privileged to work here. And it drives me nuts to see those guys tearing down what this place is all about.”

Democrats say that top caucus leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Bob Menendez, and Charles Rangel tend to share such sentiments. They have fond memories of the “gentlemanly” philosophy of Bob Michel. But several Democrats say there is a growing generational gap in the House, in which some younger members—and many staffers, some of whom have been meeting informally to plot a more radical strategy—are beginning to chafe. “Pelosi is a 'proper' person who believes in rules and order, and who loves the institution,” says a Democratic aide. “Almost everyone who was here before 1994 has that problem.” It was noteworthy that it took a freshman like Chris Bell to finally go after DeLay. Others who call for more confrontational tactics include junior members like Michael Capuano of Massachusetts and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. The generational divide isn't absolute: 75-year-old Louise Slaughter of New York is emerging as one of the party's most scalding voices about GOP ethics, while Emanuel, perhaps the House's most influential young leader, is “not of the view that the road to the majority is destruction,” he says. “I am of the view that the road is proposing and initiating ideas.”

For now, that view carries the day. Democrats say Pelosi listens to colleagues who want to fight in more extreme terms, but the caucus' overarching strategy remains unchanged. But then, Newt Gingrich emerged from beneath a leadership uninterested in bitter partisan warfare. Perhaps a group of junior Democrats will simply rise up on their own—recognizing, as one House Democratic aide puts it, “This is all-out war. They have an all-out war mentality, and I think we need to get one.” Newt would have concurred.

Michael Crowley is a senior correspondent for Time. This article appeared in the January 24, 2005, issue of the magazine.