Posted on March 27, 1995 in Washington Watch

Although it is only half-way through the first 100 days of Republican control of Congress, problems are already beginning to develop. First and foremost among them are the seemingly endless difficulties facing the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich – the first Republican to hold that post in 40 years.

Gingrich enjoyed a meteoric rise to national prominence, which was well-chronicled by the nation’s top political reporters. For years, from the beginning of his political career, he sought and worked toward the position he now holds. He worked tirelessly to advance his own personal career and also to help elect a Republican majority which could elect him Speaker.

But now, only 50 days after ascending to this coveted leadership role, Gingrich finds himself as one of the most unpopular politicians in the U.S. At same time, Gingrich’s highly publicized Republican legislative agenda – the vaunted “Contract With America” – has begun to stall after initial successes and the Speaker himself is being confronted by a string of charges of unethical behavior.

When he assumed control of the Congress in January, it appeared that Gingrich would have smooth sailing. The Republican “Contract” had enough votes to win, Republicans were in control, Clinton was in trouble, and the public was roughly supportive of the Republicans and their agenda. Gingrich himself appeared masterful in reshaping his image from one of the sharpest tongues in the House to being a strongly bipartisan leader. Gingrich had a message and a plan, and what looked like the power to implement it.

But the new Speaker ran into problems almost immediately: the kind of ethical problems that stem from carelessness and reaching too far and too fast for power.

In an effort to capitalize on his new position and broad public recognition, Gingrich announced a major book deal. As details became public it turned out that Gingrich was to be paid a fee of $4.5 million for two books and that the publisher paying the fee was Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, a somewhat controversial media magnate, has a number of sensitive issues currently pending before the government. His meeting with Gingrich and the $4.5 million contract with the Speaker had all the earmarks of a conflict of interest and a violation of ethical standards.

Interestingly enough, it appears that the Gingrich-Murdoch book deal was similar, in some respects, to the book deal that ended the Congressional career of another Speaker of the House, Democrat Jim Wright of Texas. Wright lost his position in 1989, and it is ironic that the challenge and relentless pressure which brought him down came from a young Republican firebrand from Georgia – Newt Gingrich.

A number of other controversies have erupted in the face of the Speaker. In January his appointee to be the new House Historian (a position responsible for maintaining the historical records of the Congress) came under fire for her controversial historical views, and the Speaker quickly fired her. Gingrich’s dealings with GOPAC, the political action committee he founded to help elect Republican members of Congress, were the cause of another ethics complaint. According to the complaint, Gingrich was given approval to teach a college course on the condition that it be non-partisan, but GOPAC helped to fund the course by recruiting 200,000 conservative Republican donors through bitterly partisan attacks on the President. Gingrich has also been accused of lobbying for the benefit of companies which have made large contributions to GOPAC.

In general, Gingrich is facing a number of complaints stemming from his use of his Congressional staff for personal and political efforts, which is a violation of House rules. His district office staff used government equipment on government time to help produce a book Gingrich wrote in 1984, and also worked on material for his college course. Gingrich also stands accused of using his position to get his wife a job representing an Israeli firm which paid extremely well for little work – another example of Gingrich using his high position to get “sweetheart” deals.

In short, the very excesses and abuses of power which Gingrich railed against so hard and so long while the Democrats ran the House are now the charges facing him after only fifty days in office. This hasn’t helped the image of the Republican party, which bills itself as the party of reform, since Gingrich’s troubles are so well-known and he is one of the people most closely identified with the party in the public eye. It is ironic on both counts that Gingrich defends himself by arguing that his “behavior is no different than most other members [of the House].”

As a result of this steady stream of negative stories and also, some suggest, Gingrich’s abrasive personal style, the Speaker’s ratings have fallen to extremely low levels. Back in January, the Gingrich enjoyed a 34%-37% unfavorable rating; but today that rating has fallen to 33% favorable and 47% unfavorable.

At the same time, the Republican “Contract” agenda is also suffering. The early sections of the “Contract” that came to a vote before the Congress passed easily, in part because they were easy issues and not controversial with the public. Issues like applying the same laws to Congress which apply to all other employers, ending “unfunded mandates” – the process of passing laws requiring the states to take actions without giving them the money to pay for them, cutting congressional staff and committees, opening committee meetings to the public and similar measures passed easily and with little opposition. Gingrich appeared strong and the Republicans unstoppable.

But the first significant vote on a controversial issue came last month with the fight over the balanced budget amendment. While the amendment easily won the two-thirds majority it needed in the House, Gingrich’s claim that 70% of the voters agreed with the amendment could not win enough Senators for a two-thirds majority in that body and the amendment died. Now there is a fight over “term limits” (limiting the number of terms a member of Congress can serve), with many Republicans arguing against the measure or for a version much weaker than proposed in the “Contract.” This has made Gingrich appear weak and less in command than he had seemed in January, and has not played well with many in the public who found term limits to be one of the most attractive items in the “Contract.”

Now the Republicans are attempting to tackle budget cuts, and they must achieve significant reductions in government spending before they can deliver the tax break they promised voters in November. But, as Republicans and the public are learning, it is one thing to talk about cutting the budget and quite another matter to do it. Since the Republicans cannot cut the largest item in the budget – interest on the debt – and since they will not cut the second largest item in the budget – defense – and since they insist on providing a tax break without increasing the deficit, the only area of the budget they can cut from is social programs. The problem is, the groups who receive the benefits which the Republicans wish to cut have already been hurt by budget cuts over the past 20 years and would be hurt even more by further cuts.

As the public begins to become aware of the extent of the proposed cuts and the people who would be affected by them, pressure to not make those cuts is building. The programs which the Republicans are willing to cut, including welfare, aid to farmers, aid to families with dependent children, the federal school lunch program are supported by almost 70% or more of American voters. Because of the pressure to keep these programs, 102 Republican members of Congress have told the Speaker they will not support the proposed cuts in these programs.

Problems also loom for most of the other major elements of the “Contract.” Welfare reform is running into problems as the details emerge about who will be affected by various cuts. While both the House and Senate have passed versions of the line-item veto (which would allow the President to veto individual provisions of a spending bill while signing the rest into law), they must agree on and pass the same version before that provision can take effect, and there are serious doubts that such an agreement can be reached. And until some major spending cuts are agreed to, the tax cuts promised last November will not emerge unless the Republicans break their other promise of reducing the budget deficit.

Even worse for Gingrich and the Republicans, the Democrats have finally succeeded in regaining the image as the party of the middle class, something they have not really enjoyed since 1964. A recent poll showed that by a margin of 52%-38% Americans think that President Clinton is doing a better job of fighting for the middle class than the Republican Congress. Clinton himself enjoys an approval rating of 52%, while the same 52% agree that “the more I hear about what the Republicans do in Congress, the less I like it.” Gingrich, the highest-profile Republican in the country, is declining in the polls just as Clinton, the leading Democrat, is rising.

But while Gingrich and the Republicans are facing some serious difficulties, so are the Democrats. Former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy was forced to resign from the Clinton Cabinet for serious ethics violations. Two other members of the Clinton Cabinet, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, are currently facing serious ethics charges and there are rumors that either one or both of them may be eventually forced to resign.

Yet the President himself seems to be emerging relatively unscathed from investigations into his conduct. While the Republican leadership in the Senate and House will do what they can to bring the Whitewater scandal into the news, the independent Special Counsel who has investigated the matter has not found anything with which to charge the Clintons for wrongdoing.

So, at the half-way point through the Republican Congress’ first 100 days, what had appeared to be a juggernaut of change led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich no longer seems so mighty, and the ethical troubles facing the Speaker are hurting the Republican theme of change from “business as usual.” In fact, the “revolutionary” first 100 days of the Republican Congress are becoming little more than a normal Congressional session. Newt Gingrich, the leader of the new Republican Congress, is losing the luster he’d gained by rising so far and so fast to the point that he seems little more than a normal politician – albeit one with unusually high negative ratings. He will need now to show the ability to bounce back, as Clinton has, if he is to enjoy the kind of successful tenure as Speaker which seemed so likely in the first few heady days.

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