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GOP Freshmen Return--a Bit Grizzled

November 10, 1996|Linda Killian | Linda Killian, the former editor of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," is writing a book on the House freshmen for HarperCollins

WASHINGTON — They were the self-described revolutionaries, the peasants with pitchforks who were not outside but inside the castle walls. They came to Washington to change things.

Largely because of their number and the historic nature of the 1994 election, the 73 GOP freshmen members of Congress believed only they knew what was best for the country. They believed they had a mandate from the voters for their agenda.

But voters soon began to think the freshmen wanted to get to a balanced budget and smaller government too fast. The new representatives were making cuts that unjustly affected the poor while not doing enough to reduce corporate welfare, defense and other spending programs. Most Americans did not believe the assault-weapons ban should be lifted, environmental regulations should be rolled back or the abortion debate be revisited at every opportunity.

Adam Smith, the Democrat who defeated Randy Tate in Washington's 9th District last week, said that Tate, in 1994, "won by a narrow margin and went back to Washington and acted like he won by 40 points. . . . [He] will do a good job of representing the Republican Party . . . but I'll do a good job of representing everybody."

Smith's is perhaps the most valid criticism of the freshmen. By calling themselves revolutionaries, they not only raised the bar of expectations--they scared people. And the freshmen made tactical mistakes. Shutting down the government was a turning point. It was their Waterloo--and they never completely recovered from it.

A week before the election, Rep. Rick White was campaigning in a strip mall in his suburban Seattle district. Pleasant and low-key, he was one of a handful of moderates in the freshman class. He was returned to Congress. In a card shop, a previous supporter told him she was pleased when the GOP gained a majority in Congress. "You had the opportunity of a lifetime--and you blew it," she told White. "It's too bad you wanted all or nothing, because you got nothing."

The freshmen actually got plenty. But their grandstanding in the first year of the 104th Congress deflected attention from some of their accomplishments.

They did reduce the size of the deficit and begin to control the rate of growth in government spending. They set in place a program to phase out agricultural subsidies. They passed the line-item veto; eliminated unfunded federal mandates from being passed on to local and state governments, and reformed the institution they had joined through a gift ban, lobbying reform and requiring Congress to obey the laws it passed for everyone else.

But many of their most substantial accomplishments came in the last weeks of the congressional session, the result of compromise and cooperation with the Democrats. Their constituents said they wanted it done, so they passed a minimum-wage increase, though many said privately they did not agree with it. They also passed health-care and welfare reform.

Their approval ratings went up. They knew that to be reelected they had to get something done--even if it meant helping Clinton.

It is no coincidence that Clinton won decisive margins of victory in the same districts that reelected many freshmen. The voters believe with a GOP Congress and Clinton in the White House they'll get more or less what they want--that the freshmen and the president will pull each other toward the middle.

Clinton and the freshmen have a fascinating symbiotic relationship. Clinton's election--and their opposition to his big-government approach in his first two years--inspired many of them to run for office. His presidency, in turn, started to become a success when he stood up to them during the government shutdown. He took them on--but he also got their message. He stood before the country and acknowledged that the era of big government is over. Similarly, the freshmen won the most approval from the public when they started working with the president to pass legislation.

One-fifth of the freshmen will not be back, but that was probably inevitable after the Republican tidal wave of 1994. Some kind of correction was expected.

The freshmen may say they were defeated by the liberal media and the millions that labor unions dumped into their districts for ads. But there were plenty of districts where labor spent much money and the freshman was reelected. Most of the freshmen who lost either came from districts that were significantly more Democratic or more moderate than they were, or had personal weaknesses to overcome. Like Frederick K. Heineman of North Carolina, defeated by David Price in a rematch of the 1994 campaign. Surely, a comment Heineman made to reporters in 1995 about his $133,600 House salary making him "lower middle class" reflected an insensitivity to the realities of his constituents' lives that came back to haunt him.

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