While most of Congress trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue Wednesday night to the annual White House picnic, a select group of current and former members took a trip down Memory Lane instead, converging on the Hill to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the historic House GOP class of 1994.
A half-dozen lawmakers joined nearly 40 former colleagues, including former speaker Newt Gingrich, inside the National Resources Committee hearing room to reminisce about one of the biggest “wave” elections in congressional history.
In the midterms that year, the party recaptured power in the chamber, with new members having campaigned successfully on what would become the 104th Congress’s defining document: The Contract with America.
“You are going to go down in history . . . as the greatest freshman class, at least in the last century, to walk into this House of Representatives,” said Tom DeLay of Texas, who in 1995 was the House majority whip before going on to serve as majority leader. “You are people of incredible character and incredible strength and you stood on your principles.”
Addressing the men and women who once made up his flock, DeLay sat at a long table typically reserved for witnesses testifying at committee hearings, positioned in front of the dais, where lawmakers normally sit. Incidentally, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who happens to be a member of the 1994 class, also happens to be the chairman of the Natural Resources committee, and so he chose to sit in his normal spot, front and center.
DeLay was part of a panel discussion, convened for the enjoyment of members and their spouses, that also included Gingrich, R-Ga., along with ex-Reps. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Sue Myrick, R-N.C.
It was moderated by fellow classmate and current Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who got a round of applause at the start of the event when he lauded the absence of the press so “we can say what we really think!” A media advisory sent out Monday actually advertised the discussion as on-the-record and open to reporters.
In any case, the current and former lawmakers had a free-ranging conversation that often focused on the future of the GOP and what the party needs to do now to preserve its integrity. Many of those present were eager to hear from Gingrich, their one-time leader and 2012 candidate for president, on that very theme.
In addition to promoting the forthcoming installment of his picture book series chronicling Ellis the Elephant’s adventure’s through American history, Gingrich bemoaned the current state of the GOP.
“The fact that we do not have positive themes and positive issues is going to cost us seats this fall,” Gingrich posited, “because moderates and independents aren’t going to turn out. It’s an enormous mistake.”
When asked what he thought the agenda ought to be for the GOP today, Gingrich replied, “I don’t care what it is for the next seven weeks, as long as it exists.”
He said Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was giving a speech Thursday afternoon at the American Enterprise Institute that would lay out “five points for resetting America’s economic foundation,” which Gingrich said he had already read and gave high marks.
“You have to sound like you’re more than anti-Obama, and you’re more than some . . . politician whose primary role in life is to raise money for your consultant to buy attack ads,” Gingrich added. “It’s pathetic . . . and it’s turning people off.”
“The advantage we had with Newt was . . . [he] understood our place in history,” Wamp weighed in, “understood the House’s ability, whether the president was of the other party or not, to move, and to make things happen.
“There’s a political side and a policy side,” he went on, “and frankly, if we will not lose our principles and be for good policies, our party’s gonna do well, but I will add that this next generation . . . they’re disenfranchised. They’re not gonna identify with anybody, and if we’re not careful, they’re all gonna be libertarians. We can pull them to the Republican Party.”
Gingrich and DeLay also fielded questions about immigration policy, though neither acknowledged the growing realization among many of their peers that if the GOP doesn’t take some affirmative stance on the issue in the next two years, they could pay for it at the polls in 2016.
Gingrich said a porous border meant undocumented individuals could come into the United States carrying Ebola. Wicker piped in that if Congress were ever to try again to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation, it would have to be piecemeal, and the very first bill — a border security bill — would need to be signed into law by the president before lawmakers did anything else.
DeLay said that he didn’t support “amnesty,” per se, but did think the GOP needed to do “some sort of visa reform” to allow immigrants to “come and work honestly” in the country.
During the reception that preceded the panel talk and question-and-answer session, 1994 class freshmen mingled over wine and cheese, and exchanged hugs and handshakes, giving the gathering a feeling of an actual high school or college reunion.
In addition to more than three-dozen alums who made it back to the Capitol for the event, several current House members stopped by: In addition to Hastings, appearances were made by Reps. Tom Latham of Iowa, Steve Stockman of Texas, Steve Chabot of Ohio, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Matt Salmon of Arizona and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who ducked out for the White House picnic before he could endure some ribbing from Wamp about his inadvertent “celebrity” status in the intervening years. Senators who got their start in the House in 1994 also attended: Along with Wicker were Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The event was organized, in part, by former Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., who was elected in 1994 and served seven terms before retiring. He made a bid for Senate in 2012 but lost in the Republican primary.