When the 40 or so Republican lawmakers responsible for the recent upheaval in the House talk about what it would take to quell their rebellion, they do not necessarily talk about the debt ceiling, the federal budget or any other demand of the party’s energized conservative base.There are those who fear that such a change would make the House even more ungovernable than it already is. But putting those concerns aside, it is interesting to take a historical look at where this "top-down" management the usurpers want to get rid of originated. Back in the summer of 2014, Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards laid it out for us.
They speak instead about rule changes, committee assignments and the hallowed pursuit of “regular order” — a frequently invoked, civics-textbook ideal by which legislation bubbles up through subcommittees to committees to the floor to the president’s desk and into law.
“The false, lazy narrative is that we want a more conservative speaker,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told reporters at a forum of hard-line House members last week. “But the reality is: What we want is a process-focused speaker. . . . What we need is a speaker who follows the House rules.”
When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in the fall of 1994, he set about almost immediately creating “the most controversial majority leadership since 1910,” according to longtime Congress watchers and political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their 2006 book, The Broken Branch. Under his leadership, backed up by seventy-three conservative Republican freshmen who swept to power that year, the goal was not to reform, but to destroy; not to compromise, but to advance a highly conservative agenda no matter the means.Sound familiar? Those who suggest that the current iteration of the Freedom Caucus has its roots in the precedent set by Newt Gingrich have a point. But back then the usurpers embraced an opposite means to reach their ends.
Gingrich’s strategy, as he explained it to Mann and Ornstein, was simple: Cultivate a seething disdain for the institution of Congress itself, while simultaneously restructuring it so as to eliminate anything—powerful chairmen, contradictory facts from legislative support agencies, more moderate Republicans—that would stand in the way of his vision.Fascinating, huh?
Gingrich’s first move in 1995 was to dismantle the decentralized, democratic committee system that the liberals and moderates had created in the 1970s and instead centralize that power on himself. Under his new rules, committee chairs were no longer determined by seniority or a vote by committee members, but instead appointed by the party leadership (read: by Newt himself, who often made appointees swear their loyalty to him). Subcommittees also lost their ability to set their own agendas and schedules; that too largely became the prerogative of the leadership. At the same time, Gingrich imposed six-year term limits and required chairs to be reappointed (by leadership) every two years. Finally, Gingrich protected, and in some cases bulked up, the staff leadership offices and increasingly had those offices write major pieces of legislation and hand them to the committees.
These rules, taken together, essentially stripped all congressional Republicans, especially those in previously senior positions, of power; instead, whether or not they advanced in their careers—whether they were reappointed or on which committee they were appointed—would be determined by party leaders based on their loyalty and subservience. (Two years after the Democrats took the majority in the House in 2007, they eliminated the term-limits rule; Speaker John Boehner reinstated it when the Republicans regained control in 2010.) “If you were thinking about the next stage in your career, you did what you were told to do,” observes Scott Lilly. The point of this centralization of power was to give the leadership maximum control of the legislative agenda and to jam through as many conservative bills as possible.
Now the so-called "Freedom Caucus" will dress up their aims in talk of "regular order" and "decentralization." But in the end, they're all about the same thing Gingrich was about: "not to reform, but to destroy; not to compromise, but to advance a highly conservative agenda no matter the means."