For GOP revolutionaries, tide has shifted

With departure of J.C. Watts, less than half of the insurgent 'Class of '94' remains.

The Republican class of 1994 that roared into Congress on a promise to move power away from Washington is losing its standard bearers – along with the big themes that fueled its insurgency.

With the resignation of Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma last week, less than half of the 73 upstarts who ended 42 years of Democratic control of the House will be back next year.

Some left because they had promised to serve only three terms, and kept their word. Two – Robert Ehrlich of Maryland and Van Hilleary of Tennessee – are running for governor. Three have their eyes on Senate seats.

Also among the missing when the 108th Congress convenes will be those who mapped out the insurgency, including House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, who drafted the 10-point Contract with America that the class of '94 used as its campaign manifesto. In the Senate, too, retirees include Capitol Hill's strongest conservative voices: Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

The themes of the revolution they proclaimed are also under siege. Many who stormed barricades to end big government now vote to expand the power of Washington to fight a war on terrorism.

Accounting debacles at companies such as Enron and WorldCom are boosting prospects for new Washington solutions to corporate wrongdoing, even among those who once railed against government regulation. The Senate this week takes up proposals that could become a package of legislation on corporate responsibility – sure to be a big theme in fall elections. House Republicans are launching new investigations.

As for balancing budgets and slashing deficits – two other themes of the GOP takeover – they are nearly off the table as guides for the spending decisions Congress faces in the next few weeks, as it settles appropriations for the 2003 fiscal year.

House Republicans recently voted to boost the nation's $5.95 trillion debt limit by $450 billion – a move that would have been unthinkable for the deficit hawks who led the GOP takeover. Only three members of the class of '94 dissented. And members of Congress are returning from their July 4 recess to a military construction bill that spends hundreds of millions beyond what the White House wants.

It is rare in congressional politics for a new class of freshmen to be fired by a big idea. Most congressional campaigns are fiercely local. A notable exception: the so-called Watergate babies of 1974. The new class pushed for laws to sharply restrict the powers of the executive branch.

The GOP freshmen who came to the House 20 years later had even broader ambitions. They wanted to rein in all of official Washington, including Congress. They claimed a mandate to cut spending, deficits, taxes, and all the rules regulating business.

"Like the Watergate class of 1975, they had tremendous satisfaction in the first few years. But that sense of mission and unity is almost impossible to recapture later on," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia analyst.

For some conservatives, the current tilt on Capitol Hill toward big government and bigger deficits is a betrayal of the revolution. "A number of them have become a part of the Washington establishment and no longer have the fervor for making these changes they did in 1994," says Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank.

For many on the right, term limits are a litmus test. The Class of 1994 was the first in which many planned their own obsolescence – pledging to leave after six or eight years. And on Day 1, House Republicans limited the tenure of committee chairmen. Now those limits – including similar ones adopted by GOP senators in 1995 – are up for reconsideration.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R) of Tennessee – one of the class of '94 – says experience has shown that term limits give too much power to congressional staff.

"In the end, the class of 1994 was always a very small minority," says Ed Crane, president of the libertarian CATO Institute. "Once the powers that be in Congress realized there was not much they could do, the old guard reasserted itself."

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