Cheers and Some Fears on Capitol Hill

On the one hand, Republicans who took control of the House and Senate last year have defined the agenda for the party and, some would argue, for the nation. Their stated goals--reining in the federal government, balancing the budget, reforming welfare and defending traditional family values--form the core of Dole's campaign. Even Clinton--rhetorically at least--has backed key parts of the GOP agenda.

On the other hand, Capitol Hill Republicans are plagued by charges of extremism that have frayed their relations with Dole and given Democrats a shot at winning back the House. The House Republican Contract With America, which made such a splash early in the 104th Congress, was quickly overshadowed by GOP lawmakers' role in the budget stalemate and the ensuing government shutdown.

House Republicans, in particular, have discovered the perils of reaching too far, too fast. Their commander in chief, Speaker Gingrich, is hugely unpopular in the polls. The architects of the contract badly overestimated the electorate's appetite for change, some political analysts say. A June Washington Post poll suggested that key swing groups, including senior citizens and white Catholics, are fleeing from the House Republicans.

``There has been a fundamental flip-flop here in the [voters'] views of the Republican Party and of Congress,'' Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, said.

Many voters, he added, view congressional Republicans as ``too partisan, too ideological, too intolerant and too conservative. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe that's a caricature of the Republicans. But that's what the voters think.''

So what happened to the GOP revolution? Many Capitol Hill Republicans argue that their agenda, as articulated in the contract, is as popular as ever. ``Nobody's going to run away from the Contract With America,'' a Republican congressional leadership aide promised.

Many Republicans acknowledge, though, that while their message may have been popular, it was badly delivered. "I think what the congressional Republicans have done has exceeded any reasonable expectation. We have won the debate on substance,'' Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, a leading GOP moderate, said. ``We have been edged out on style.''

Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill have set out to tone down their rhetoric and put a human face on GOP leaders and issues. At the party's convention, in an aggressive television advertising campaign and on Capitol Hill, Republican officials will make a self-conscious effort to highlight how GOP policies help average Americans.

It's an open question whether efforts to polish the congressional Republicans' image will work their magic by November. While party leaders remain confident that they'll increase their majority in both the House and the Senate, Democrats have been adept at exploiting Republican weaknesses.

Despite a whirlwind of votes on the contract and some major legislative accomplishments, including dramatic changes in farm policy, telecommunications law and welfare reform, Republicans have taken many lumps for their performance during the 104th Congress.

Having claimed Capitol Hill as the new center of governance, they took the blame when the budget stalemate shut down the government. The Republicans' austere budget, their talk of a revolution and their assault on environmental programs scared many voters, political observers say.

More than anything, the GOP's attempts to curb the growth of medicare have created damaging fallout. ``They took on the growth of medicare when the groundwork had not really been laid to do so,'' William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, said in an interview.

``The Republicans were acting out of good motives. They wanted to balance the budget. But it was probably a mistake to allow that to become the central issue of American politics by September of 1995, '' Kristol added.

Now panic has set in among vulnerable Capitol Hill Republicans, and it is compounded by some GOP lawmakers' lack of confidence in Dole. Dole has distanced himself from his former colleagues, some House Members complain. And they contend that he has failed to embrace a congressional agenda that they claim still enjoys wide public support.

``Bob Dole is at the moment not running on the Republican congressional agenda,'' said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., a leading freshman advocate of a balanced budget. ``He's simply not doing it. Now, if you ask what he is running on, I have to candidly say, I don't know.'' On some issues, he added, Dole ``is running against the congressional agenda. And I think that's a grave mistake.''

Dole's getting an earful of advice from Republicans on Capitol Hill. RNC chairman Barbour and Dole campaign officials meet regularly with House and Senate Members to map out strategy and to craft a coherent GOP message. Congressional leaders have been key architects of the tax cut plan that's emerging as a centerpiece of Dole's campaign.

Even as the presidential campaign heats up, some argue that it's the congressional wing that controls the party's destiny this fall. ``Just as the victory in '94 defined the successes of 1995, the failures of '95 have now carried over into '96,'' Kristol said. ``Dole may be a weak candidate. . . but it is very much the triumph and tragedy of Gingrich and his colleagues that is the dominant political story.''

That could hurt Dole this fall, though Capitol Hill Republicans forcefully deny it. They blame a favorite target--the national news media--for GOP lawmakers' perceived troubles. ``Without question, the majority of our [freshman] class always had support at home for what we were doing,'' said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., a liaison between the freshmen and the GOP leadership. ``So the only time we felt we were doing a lousy job was when we were inside the Beltway.''

Republicans also blame the AFL-CIO's $35 million pro-Democrat advertising and political mobilization campaign, along with the Democratic National Committee's ``issue'' ads linking Dole with Gingrich.

The slippage in GOP poll numbers ``was a product not of the contract but of Clinton and his advertising arms giving out false information on a massive level regarding what our medicare proposal was,'' Gingrich's spokesman Tony Blankley said.

As for the Speaker, Blankley said that ``Newt is a special case.'' While acknowledging that Gingrich has been bruised by a barrage of Democratic ethics complaints, Blankley said, ``Back home he's doing very well.''

The same is true for dozens of House and Senate Republicans, who may suffer in the polls as a group but remain popular in their districts.

There's little question, though, that winning broad, national support for Capitol Hill Republicans' agenda has proved tougher than many lawmakers expected. In part, that's because the Congress is so diverse that Republicans there rarely speak with one voice, particularly at election time. Also, attempting to govern the nation from Capitol Hill, as Gingrich set out to do, may be a losing battle.

``The House and the Senate are not created to lead,'' said James Thurber, director of the American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. ``They are created to represent.''

``I think the Republicans lost the budget debate because they overplayed their hand,'' said William F. Connelly, a politics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. ``And they overplayed their hand because they were convinced that following the '94 election, they had created congressional government for the first time in a century--and that the center of government was not only the Congress but the House of Representatives.''

For all their influence in steering the GOP course, Capitol Hill Republicans will have a low profile at the party's national convention except for Rep. Molinari, a moderate. ``Cigar-smoking, middle-aged blue suits are not going to be featured front and center,'' a GOP leadership aide said.

But Members are helping the GOP ticket in other ways. Lawmakers with solid support back home, such as Rep. Jennifer B. Dunn, R-Wash., are planning get-out-the-vote drives on behalf of Dole. ``There are certain states where we will need help from the presidential campaign. There are other states where we will give help to the presidential campaign,'' Dunn said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have also donated unprecedented sums to party campaign committees. Connie Mack III of Florida is one of several Senators who have donated generously from their own campaign funds to the party. Mack gave $250,000.

Gingrich is one of at least three House leaders who have given $250,000 to the RNC, as part of a massive House drive to raise money for ads touting congressional Republicans' successes. The $8 million campaign, run by the National Republican Congressional Committee in conjunction with the RNC and state party committees, will help the whole GOP ticket, said NRCC chairman Bill Paxon of New York.

House and Senate Republicans have become convinced that their agenda won't fly without a strong presidential candidate. ``At the end of the day, you can't lead the nation from the Congress,'' Shadegg said. ``I think it's extremely important for us to hold the Congress because there's immediate authority here to initiate and to act. But I think to lead the nation, you have to have the presidency.''

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.