Taking Tip from O'Neill, Others, Gingrich Shapes Role of Speaker
`Mr. Partisan' may need to build coalitions to get GOP bills passed
WASHINGTON — JOE CANNON, one of the so-called ``czar'' House Speakers of the early 1900s, required lockstep Republican discipline. Sam Rayburn, 30 years later, was the great negotiator. Tip O'Neill perfected the politics of confrontation.
Now Newt Gingrich is taking a page from each of them.
With a GOP majority in the House for the first time in 40 years and a weakened White House, the silver-thatched Georgia congressman has the potential for becoming one of the most powerful Speakers of the century.
As Congress works this week in lame-duck session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are making key leadership decisions - and maneuvering to set the legislative tone for the next two years.
For Speaker-in-waiting Gingrich, that means working behind the scenes to restructure the House committee system and rewriting the rules of legislation, bypassing leadership appointments on the basis of seniority and consolidating his power.
One chief aim: to streamline government and stop the practice of reviewing legislation in more than one committee.
Riding a mandate from the midterm elections, he has seized the high ground in Washington, warning President Clinton not to obstruct his conservative agenda - a 10-part ``Contact With America'' that he vows to take up in the first 100 days of the next session.
``The mere novelty of coming to power after 40 years of entrenched Democratic rule is an opportunity,'' says Ronald Peters, an expert on Congress at the University of Oklahoma. ``With the Democrats in the White House, the Republicans have an opportunity to raise the Speaker's office to a new plateau.''
But political analysts warn that the Speaker's office is nonpartisan, and strident barbs may damage the office he is expected to receive this Friday.
``The politics that brought Gingrich here - strident ideology, attacks on the Democratic leadership - are not effective [in the Speakership],'' he adds.
Mr. Gingrich's ultimate place will hinge on the voters' verdict of the 104th Congress. If Republicans can build a legislative record in the next two years that enables them to expand their congressional majority in 1996, the political realignment of 1994 will be verified. If not, they could share the same fate as the GOP majorities of 1947 and 1953, which also promised tax and spending cuts and lost in the next election.
Described by some as a brilliant tactician, Gingrich seems fully aware of the challenge. He has been seeking the Speakership for two decades, honing his vision for a post-New-Deal America and building a formidable base of support among House Republicans.
Since his freshman session, Gingrich has worked relentlessly to remold the House Republican conference in his own ideological image. Most GOP members were elected after 1978, the year he joined the House; 139 of the 231 Republican members were elected in 1990 or later, many with Gingrich's help. Like Cannon in 1910, Gingrich has a firm command on party discipline.
``The young members don't know the ropes,'' says Leroy Rieselbach, a Congress watcher at Indiana University. ``They owe Gingrich a great debt.''
But the strength Gingrich will have as Speaker lies in the chairmanships and jurisdiction of committees. In the first major reorganization of the committee structure since 1946, Gingrich and his reformers have various plans that could reduce the number of committees from 22 to 16, and the number of subcommittees from 115 to below 90.
The chairmanships of some committees are going to younger ranking members beholden to him. The two powerhouse panels - Energy and Commerce, which sees 60 percent of all legislation, and Ways and Means - may lose some of the subcommittees that fall under their jurisdiction.
In the strange calculus of Congress, overall staff will be cut by one-third, but Democratic staff will be reduced by as much as 80 percent. GOP staff will increase.
The goal, according to Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, a former co-chair of a special committee to reform Congress, is to make government more efficient and end joint referrals, where legislation falls under the jurisdiction of more than one committee.
``For 50 years the system has been designed to pursue the Democrats' agenda'' of big government, Mr. Dreier says. Arguing the need for reform, he says 107 subcommittees lay claim to the Pentagon, 57 to children and family issues, and 91 to the Environmental Protection Agency.
``The Republicans have a team approach to leadership,'' Peters says. ``They want subcommittee leaders that reflect the party view.... Gingrich doesn't want any committee chairmen senior to himself.''
One set of reforms may not bolster Gingrich's role as Speaker. In his ``Contract With America,'' he vowed to reinstitute open rules, allowing amendments to be introduced on the House floor and barring proxy voting in an effort to make the workings of Congress more transparent.
Gingrich inherits an office that the Democrats have strengthened over the past 20 years. He has a mandate and a majority. But there are fault lines in the Republican unity that will test his stature.
``He has a big enough majority for most issues, even without Democratic swing votes,'' says David Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale University. ``But 30 Republicans didn't go along with his view on the crime bill. He'll have to hold together a heterogeneous coalition.''