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‘Contract With America’ Set High-Water Mark for GOP Unity

contract 238 091714 445x296 Contract With America Set High Water Mark for GOP Unity
DeLay, left, chats with Chabot during a Sept. 17 reception marking the anniversary of the 1994 “Contract With America.” (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay — or “The Hammer,” as he was known in his leadership days — recently called the GOP Class of 1994 “the greatest freshman class . . . to walk into the House of Representatives.”

Newt Gingrich, who won the speaker’s gavel in 1995 as a reward for orchestrating the first House Republican takeover in four decades, agreed.

“This is not just a game,” he said last month. “This is about how the free people govern themselves, and [that] class was as fine an example of that as I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

The men, from Texas and Georgia respectively, were preaching to the choir: They’d been invited back to Capitol Hill to deliver remarks to more than 40 members of the ‘94 class who reunited to celebrate the fast-approaching 20th anniversary of the historic election.

But the praise did more than just puff the egos of former and current lawmakers attending the event. It unplugged a spigot of nostalgia for what many of the Republicans on hand recalled as halcyon days of legislating.

“Who would have thought that the good old days were the Clinton-Gingrich years?” asked former Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican and a ’94 alumnus. “Now wouldn’t we all love to go back to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 . . . the last major piece of legislation in this country that was truly bipartisan?”

“The fact that taxes hadn’t been cut in a long time, and the fact that we’d talked about welfare reform for years, but nobody seemed to do it,” fellow classmate and current Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot agreed. “Well, we actually did deal with those issues.”

Nobody denies the class is unique for the things it did, the circumstances it emerged from and the conservative ideological overhaul it executed.

“They certainly found opportunities” to get things done, said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on Congress. “But the idea that this was a class that came in and did great legislative things is a stretch.”

As the 20th anniversary of that decisive election nears, CQ Roll Call spoke to current and former members, political observers and academics to assess the legacy of the Class of ’94 and the imprint it has left on today’s Capitol Hill.

What the Class Did

There’s disagreement over what House Republicans in the 104th Congress can claim credit for — some say Gingrich and company won the balanced budget argument and overhauled welfare, while others argue President Bill Clinton brokered those deals.

But there’s little dispute over the class’s biggest achievement: Fulfilling its promise to bring to the floor, in its first 100 days, all 10 bills contained in the campaign document-turned-legislative road map known as the “Contract With America.”

The measure held more symbolic value than far-reaching policy consequences. However, the contract unified the GOP conference and facilitated a level of productivity unheard of in modern congressional history.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., a member of the ’94 class, said the modern Republican Conference could do with another document like the Contract With America, “an agenda we can coalesce around so we’re not always fighting on the things we don’t agree on.”

Ex-Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who served in the House from 1995 to 2008, said the contract united the party — for a time.

“Had it not been for the contract, things would have broken up a lot sooner than they did,” Davis said. “Once you got through that, you had a whole host of other issues that made things more complicated. Members started looking at re-election. In 1996, we had some losses. Newt was almost deposed because they thought he wasn’t conservative enough. And there was the rise of the interest groups.”

By 1996, Ornstein said, the House had devolved into “trench warfare,” leading to the Clinton impeachment proceedings and a number of government shutdowns.

What the Class Was

There’s a tendency to compare the GOP class that helped recapture control of the House in 2010 with that of 1994 — both classes came to power in “wave” elections, wore the “anti-establishment” label proudly and did little to disguise a distaste for Washington, D.C., and all it represented.

But it’s a comparison that 1994 class members and congressional scholars, by and large, reject.

Members of the Class of 1994, past and present, still have warm feelings for their leadership. Gingrich, DeLay and Dick Armey, R-Texas, had a special quality, members said, that helped keep the conference together.

The class of 2010, by contrast, has clashed constantly with GOP leaders.

“Our leader . . . had a vision,” Wamp said. “That separates us from today. It’s hard to compare classes, because times change, but we had a vision, and we had the capacity to make it a reality.”

Bill Connelly, a professor at Washington and Lee University who co-wrote a book about the 1994 “Republican revolution,” said it isn’t a case of one slate of leaders being better than another.

“The [1995] conference of the House GOP had gratitude,” Connelly said, for giving them power after 40 years in the minority. “[Gingrich] brought them out of the permanent minority, out of the wilderness.”

There wasn’t the same gratitude in 2010, when most Republicans could remember a time their party controlled the chamber. They didn’t feel like they owed Speaker John A. Boehner and his lieutenants, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor and then-Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the same kind of cooperation and flexibility.

The 2010 class also didn’t feel the same type of loyalty as its 1994 counterpart, added Sean Theriault, a professor at the University of Texas who has studied the legacy of the ’94 GOP freshmen.

“The [legacy of the] 2010 class is that they care less about the institution, less about their party, and more about their ideology, the true belief about the tea party principles,” Theriault said. “In the ’90s, at the end of the day, they were all fighting for the Republican Party.”

The Class’s Legacy

Despite the differences, the 1994 class paved the way, in many respects, for the GOP class of 2010.

It was Gingrich, said Theriault, who “changed the conversation in Washington, D.C. — and changed how politics is practiced in the United States.

“Before 1994 . . . what happened in American politics is these great cycles of campaigning, and then you go to Washington, D.C., and govern. What happens in the Gingrich era is, everything that happens in Washington becomes part of the cycle. Everything becomes part of the national election.”

This spirit inevitably helped change the culture of the Senate, too, Theriault said, as ambitious 1994 class members ascended to the other chamber. Five of them still serve there today.

“The Senate is a place where compromises are supposed to be made,” Theriault said. “The politics that Gingrich practiced . . . meant that the number of senators who were willing to be in a working coalition got smaller and smaller.”

In assessing the legacy of the Class of 1994 , Ornstein said none of them became great legislators the way the 1974 House Democrat “Watergate Babies” did.

Connelly said many of the most conservative Republicans elected 20 years ago ultimately became part of the establishment; the tea party lawmakers elected in 2010 would, he said, have the same fate.

At the reunion gathering on Capitol Hill last month, Wamp offered his own review of what had become of his freshman class.

He ticked off: One former Cabinet secretary, two former governors, one current governor, one former senator, five current senators, 11 current House members, two federal judges and one libertarian nominee for president.

One 1994 classmate had become “a global leader against sex trafficking.” Fifteen members “ran for statewide office, unsuccessfully.”

He handed out some superlatives for humor, stubbornness, athleticism, statesmanship, humility and philanthropy.

And the award for controversy?

“All 73 of us.”

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