I had a meeting to go to in the Capitol shortly after the Nov. 8 election. On previous occasions, I’ve greeted the prospect of a visit there much the way a vegetarian would look forward to a trip to the stockyards. The problem is here.
The imperial Congress, the growth of government and of its intrusiveness into American life, the disingenuousness bordering on fraud in the legislative process – the whole catastrophe. In my darker moments, I could imagine the place as the center of evil in the universe, complete with demons such as Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio.
This view is, of course, nuts: In fact, the monumental political achievement of constitutional, representative government, in which a free people manage their own affairs, will be a light unto the ages, and anyway, the real center of evil in the universe is 1111 Constitution Ave., headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself strolling into the Capitol more or less whistling a happy tune. “Ah, the people’s house,” I mused.
A good election will do this for a person.
The 104th Congress is upon us, and I, for one, am happy. The mere fact of Republican control alone would have caused this happiness. What makes me even happier is that everything is going so well.
Let us consider the job Republican representatives woke up to on the morning of Nov. 9. Here was an institution that had been in the control of their political opponents for 40 years. And when I say control, I mean control.
Republicans really didn’t have a clue about how the place worked, because they were never in on the meetings and didn’t get copies of the memos. They didn’t know where the House’s money (our money, that is) was going; they didn’t know who was doing what in various offices. They found out, for example, that there was exactly one guy who knew how to work the electronic voting system.
That’s the mechanics. Then there was the whole problem of actually running the place. All of a sudden, guys who essentially had been out of it were going to be calling the shots. What to do first, second, third? There was no institutional memory among Republicans whatsoever.
When the Clintons came to Washington, they at least had people from the Carter administration to draw upon (which, come to think of it, may explain a lot). The Republicans had zilch.
The potential for turmoil was such as to make the hostile takeovers of the 1980s look like Girl Scout jamborees. And the Republicans brought it off without a hitch.
My GOP friends on Capitol Hill don’t necessarily share that view, by the way, but then their lot since Nov. 8 has been one of 20-hour days, endless meetings, unprecedented numbers of phone calls and so forth. Some of them perceive a dizzying environment of barely controlled chaos.
In fact, they’re too modest. Of course there were some bumps, but given the potential for turmoil, they were relatively minor. In fact, before the election, I had been predicting that should they lose, the line surviving Democrats would peddle to their friends in the media would be: “Badly divided GOP in charge, chaos reigns.” Well, there were some stories along those lines, but they were about the Democrats.
How did this come to pass? The answer is actually rather simple: Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, along with their supporting casts. About eight months before the election, when the suggestion that the Republicans might win control of Congress would have gotten you laughed out of any Georgetown cocktail party, Gingrich and Armey started to take the possibility of winning seriously. And they assigned staffers to come up with a plan.
To be sure, at first, most of the people involved thought they probably had until the 1996 election. But the instructions were to plan for it this go-round.
And plan they did. They mapped out what they had to do and when they had to do it. They got legal advice from hotshot lawyers who had been in the Bush administration and were eager to keep a hand in the political game. They figured out what they had to do to get their hands on important records that were in the possession of people who wouldn’t necessarily want to give them up. They thought about reconfiguring the committee structure, they mapped out a staff cut, they pored over the Democrats’ House rules and determined the ones they wanted to change, and so on.
Along the way, the notion of the Republicans’ “Contract With America” was born, although the name came later. (I will note immodestly that I was the first to write about it, in an article about what would happen if the GOP won in November, which appeared in the summer issue of the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review.) In an effort to “nationalize” the election – to give voters a reason to vote Republican, not just for Candidate X – GOP leaders spelled out what they would do during the “First 100 Days” (then 90 days, then 100 again) of their watch.
Despite a pounding from the Democrats and their media pals, the contract served its purpose. But the most important thing it achieved was to unite the GOP around the set of legislative measures. At first a document for getting candidates elected, it became the blueprint for what to do after Nov. 8.
Again, to understand the effect, imagine that the Republicans had won without the contract. The answer to the question, “What are you going to do?” would have been, “We’re arguing about that now.”
I suppose I’m in for my share of disappointments. But Washington has never looked so good, and I’m just giddy enough to say so.