Newt Gingrich, gridlock and “pay to play”

Newt Gingrich created the “pay to play” system by which House of Representatives committee assignments and leadership positions hinge on their ability to raise money for the party.  And he also is as responsible as anyone for the partisan divisions that keep the legislative process in gridlock.

Political scientist Tom Ferguson tells the story.

In the mid-1980s, a group of insurgent Republicans broke with the long established norms governing how the U.S. House of Representatives transacted business.  Led by Newt Gingrich, it derided older Republican House leaders as timid, unimaginative, and too inclined to compromise with Democrats.  Self-styled “revolutionaries” launched vigorous public attacks on Democrats as they trumpeted their own agenda of deregulation, budget cuts, lower taxes, and a baker’s dozen of social issues, from abortion to opposition to all forms of gun control.

Result?  The House boiled over.  Statistical measures of Congressional behavior show that party line votes jumped sharply.

Gingrich and his allies were painfully aware that transforming the GOP’s gains at the presidential level into a true “critical realignment” of the political system as a whole required breaking the Democratic lock on Congress.  So they shattered all records for Congressional fundraising in their drive to get control of the House.  Their success in this and their parallel campaign to rally major parts of the media to their standard are what polarized the system.  The GOP insurgents emphasized fundraising, not just through the usual publicly reported vehicles like the national party committees, but also GOPAC, a political action committee that Gingrich had controlled since 1986, which operated mostly in secret.

In 1992, in the midst of a recession, the Republicans lost the White House. But their dreams of a sweeping political realignment did not die.  In fact, by clearing centrist Republicans out of their perches in the White House, the loss probably helped Gingrich and his allies.

Completely undaunted, Gingrich, Republican National Chair Haley Barbour, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Phil Gramm orchestrated a vast national campaign to recapture Congress for the Republicans in the 1994 elections.  With the economy stuck in a “jobless recovery” and Democratic fundraising sputtering, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress.

The tidal wave of political money they conjured allowed Gingrich, Gramm, Barbour and Co., to brush aside older, less combative center-right Republican leaders and persist in their efforts to roll back the New Deal and remake American society in the image of free market fundamentalism.  Once in power, the Republicans institutionalized sweeping rules changes in the House and the Republican caucus that vastly increased the leadership’s influence over House legislation.  They also implemented a formal “pay to play” system that had both inside and outside components.

On the outside, DeLay and other GOP leaders, including Grover Norquist, who headed Americans for Tax Reform, mounted a vast campaign (the so-called “K Street Project”) to defund the Democrats directly by pressuring businesses to cut off donations and avoid retaining Democrats as lobbyists. Inside the House, Gingrich made fundraising for the party a requirement for choice committee assignments. Senate Republicans, led by Phil Gramm and other apostles of deregulation, emulated the House.

And so, alas, did the Democrats.

Click on Standstill Nation as the New Abnormal for Tom Ferguson’s full article for the Roosevelt Institute.

Click on Our Polarized and Money-Driven Congress: Created Over 25 Years by Republicans (And Quickly Imitated by Democrats) for more on Gingrich’s legacy on the Naked Capitalism web log.

Click on Newt Gingrich and Our Dysfunctional Congress for an article on Gingrich’s legacy by Lou Dubose of The Washington Spectator.

Click on Newt Gingrich Is a Saul Alinsky Republican for an analysis of Newt Gingrich’s political tactics from the Washington Examiner.

Click on Language: a Key Mechanism of Control for Newt Gingrich’s 1996 GOPAC Memo on political rhetoric.

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