Lehman: GOP Grasps Reality Despite Shades of ’94

Posted November 1, 2010 at 5:04pm

The elections today naturally invite comparisons to the Republican takeover of 1994 — when the GOP gained more than 50 seats in the House and won control of that chamber for the first time in 40 years.

There is palpable excitement about the prospect of regaining the majority in the 112th Congress, but for those of us who were on the Hill in 1994, there is a major difference. It’s the difference between the exhilaration and delight you felt about Christmas as a kid and the responsibilities and anxiety you experience during the holiday season as an adult.

In 1994, we were filled with excitement and bravado. We knew we had a lot to learn, but our enthusiasm and passion meant that no challenge was insurmountable.

This year, our excitement is tempered by the reality of the difficult tasks that lay ahead and our institutional awareness (completely lacking in 1994) that governing is not a simple job.

In 1994, a generation had passed since Republicans had been in control. There was no one to turn to for guidance, no one who could advise us on what was needed to pass major legislation or even to accomplish mundane tasks.

A friend who worked for incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1994 reminded me last week that his biggest worry then was whether someone would know how to turn on the lights in the House chamber and could make the voting machines work. We had zero institutional memory. Everything was a challenge.

But that hardly mattered. We were like kids who, having barely slept the night before, woke up on Christmas morning propelled by adrenaline and joy to run downstairs, open our presents and bask in the happiness of the day.

Remember Ralphie in the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story”? For weeks, his entire youthful existence hinged on receiving the perfect Christmas present — the official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range-model air rifle.

After taking the majority in 1994, with the eagerness of Ralphie ripping open the wrapping to discover his beloved Red Ryder, we Republicans immediately set to work implementing the “Contract With America.” At the time, I was counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, and we had sole responsibility for, or a role in, moving six of the 10 items in the contract.

We had never run a markup, never filed a committee report, never taken a bill to the floor in the majority. But somehow we managed to pass the entire contract in fewer than the allotted 100 days — driven by the excitement and confidence at being able to vote on policies that we felt were in America’s best interest.

Flash forward to 2010. Our enthusiasm is mitigated by the reality of just how difficult it is to lead, legislate and govern. It’s the difference between Christmas as a kid and Christmas as a grown-up.

As an adult, let’s face it, the holidays are stressful. Whom do I need to buy presents for and what should I get them? Do I fight the crowds at the mall and then spend an hour in line at the post office mailing gifts or just shop online? Who’s coming to dinner and what am I going to cook? Will all of the relatives get along this year? Are we going to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? How am I going to get everything done?

As a kid, your biggest worry was whether Santa was going to bring you the present you asked for. As an adult, the satisfaction is deeper, but honestly, a lot more work.

This is not to say that Republicans are not thrilled at the prospect of taking back the House and standing up for lower taxes, less government spending and getting the economy back on track. But like an adult facing the holidays (or even like little Ralphie, who broke his glasses firing the first pellet from his new air rifle), their excitement will be tempered by the reality of the challenges that lay ahead.

Kathryn Lehman, a former aide to top House Republican leaders, is a partner at Holland & Knight.