The House GOP's Civil War: A Political Science Perspective

PS: Political Science and Politics

Volume 30 (December 1997)

William F. Connelly, Jr., Washington & Lee University and
John J. Pitney, Claremont McKenna College

In 1997, just two years after their impressive show of unity on the Contract With America, the House Republicans were apparently turning into the House of Atreus. Squabbles high and low divided their leadership, demoralized their rank and file, and delighted their Democratic opponents. Many political commentators blamed this turmoil on the personal shortcomings of Speaker Gingrich and other top lawmakers. Such explanations did make some sense. At least part of the trouble stemmed from the Speaker's ethics problems and the leadership's poor political judgments about disaster relief legislation.

About the Authors

William F. Connelly, Jr. is professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. John J. Pitney, Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. They are coauthors of Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the US House (1994) and "'Permanent Minority' No More-House Republicans in 1994" in Philip A. Klinkner, ed., Midterm (1996).

But the House GOP's summer of discontent was neither a purely personal affair nor a total departurefrom the party's history: House Republicans suffered from serious factionalism during their long journey in the political wilderness (Connelly and Pitney 1994, ch. 2). While lacking in liberals and ethnic minorities, they still found many things to fight about, such as political strategy, institutional loyalty, and generational outlook. As Rohde (1991, 152-53) demonstrated in detail, House Republicans consistently had lower party-unity scores than Democrats throughout the Reagan years.

After they won their majority, swift House Republican action on the Contract left the widespread impression that they had turned into a lean, mean, quasi-military machine. That impression was misleading. According to an excellent analysis by James G. Gimpel (1996, 18), the Contract was a consensus document: party leaders included only items that already commanded broad agreement within the party (e.g., a balanced-budget amendment) and they excluded items that would stir dissent (e.g., anti-abortion legislation). After the first hundred days, when the agenda shifted away from GOP consensus issues, House Republicans were bound to lose some of this unity and resume their fractious ways.

And the split came. Rather than representing some sudden eruption of ill will, the intramural conflicts resulted from the same kinds of broad forces that had shaped their behavior during their minority years. A convenient device for understanding these forces is a Rubik's Cube the roles played by ideas, interests, and institutions correspond to the puzzle's three dimensions, and the actions of individuals constitute the hands that twist the cube (Connelly and Pitney 1994, 99). The cube metaphor is apt because it suggests the baffling intricacy of legislative party behavior.


Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the liberal wing of the congressional GOP shriveled in numbers and influence (Rae 1989). In the 1990s, nearly all House Republicans called themselves conservatives. Nevertheless, analysts err when they speak of ideological uniformity within GOP ranks, because the "conservative" label covers many contending schools of thought. In his perceptive study of House GOP factions, Douglas L. Koopman (1996, ch. 3) carefully distinguishes the "old right" from both the "new right" and the "religious right," and the "neoconservatives" from the "libertarians." And the distinctions do not end there. "Tax hawks" claw with "deficit hawks" over fiscal priorities, and there is even a budding "communitarian" movement whose House and Senate adherents have formed a group called the Renewal Alliance. Among the top House Republicans, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas is a Chicago School economist while Policy Committee Chair Christopher Cox of California is a serious student of Ayn Rand.

Speaker Gingrich holds an odd place in this ideological firmament. Contrary to a common assumption, he did not come out of the conservative intellectual movement; instead, his thought reflects the moderate Ripon Society Republicanism of the 1960s, Toffler's futurism, and Drucker's managerialism (Pitney 1997). From a political standpoint, his eclectic philosophy has both assets and liabilities. On the one hand, it has enabled him to communicate with all the party's ideological factions: the moderates of the "Tuesday Lunch Bunch" regard him as far more sympathetic than Artney or Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. On the other hand, no group sees him as "our guy." Social moderates grumble that he yields too much to religious conservatives, who in turn think his concerns are more economic than spiritual; meanwhile, economic conservatives worry that he flirts with big government.

Long before he became Speaker, Gingrich often found himself in ideological crossfire. At the 1991 Conservative Political Action Conference, he called it "a disservice to America when conservatives spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their time fighting over the level of perfection in the party." DeLay, then the chair of the "new right" Republican Study Committee, replied: "That's not our line. We're having a struggle right now within the Republican Party. Basically, it's those who think they're here to govern and those who think they're here to take over a majority. I am not among those here to govern. I am here to take over a majority from the Democrats" (quoted in Connelly and Pitney 1994, 62).

DeLay's 1991 comment suggests another dimension to the Republican debate over ideas. Especially since they won the majority, many Republicans have seen their primary responsibility as the daily grind of governance, which consists mainly of detail work and compromise. Others seethe at the incremental pace of change, believing that the party has lost sight of the main purpose of majority status: sustaining a populist revolution. Still others favor strong policy action but shun revolutionary rhetoric because they have seen focus groups confirm what Tocqueville observed of democratic peoples: "They love change, but they dread revolutions."


In Federalist 10, Madison observed that factions result from diversity of interests; and throughout congressional history, a major source of divergent interest has been geography (Rossiter 1965, 79). So it is with today's House GOP.

In the 1990s, for the first time ever, Republicans from the South and West came to outnumber those from the Northeast and Midwest. Accordingly, the leadership took on a Sunbelt complexion, with Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay all hailing from the South. In the 105th Congress, only a single Northeasterner held an elected leadership position: Conference Vice Chair Susan Molinari of New York. (When Molinari resigned in the summer of 1997, Republicans replaced her with Jennifer Dunn of Washington state. Deborah Pryce of Ohio won Dunn's previous post as Conference Secretary.)

Many Northeasterners felt alienated, and they grew nervous about embracing a leadership that looked remote and unattractive to their constituents. Michael Forbes, from the eastern tip of Long Island, became the first House Republican to oppose Gingrich's reelection as Speaker. Fellow Long Islander Peter King, who had earlier attacked the leadership's hostility to labor unions, wrote a memorable article in which he referred to Gingrich as "road kill" (1997, 22).

Environmental issues have supplied a battleground for this regional conflict. Northeasterners tend to favor environmental regulation because their area is ecologically sensitive, while inland Westerners tend to oppose it because the federal government already wields extraordinary power over their region. In the 104th Congress, Gingrich bowed to the Northeast by naming Sherwood Boehlert of upstate New York cochair of an environmental task force. In the next Congress, after Boehlert persuaded the House to pass a proregulatory amendment to endangered-species legislation, a group of inland Westerners demanded that Gingrich limit Boehlert's influence. He reportedly acceded to the demand, and one of the participants left the meeting feeling "very good" (Hume 1997b). Gingrich met with Boehlert, who then denied that the Speaker had curbed him and said that he came away feeling "very good" (Hume 1997a). The Westerners could not have felt very good about Boehlert's reaction.

In addition to regional conflict, Republicans have always had to deal with generational competition between "young bulls" and "old bulls," with the former inevitably becoming the latter, only to face challenges from a new set of "young bulls." In the 104th Congress, Appropriations Chair Bob Livingston of Louisiana removed freshman Mark Neumann of Wisconsin from a key subcommittee. The class of 1994 rallied around Neumann, forcing Speaker Gingrich to find him an equally prestigious assignment on the Budget Committee. The incident increased generational tensions and left the young bulls with a taste of power.


Although institutional context may not offer a complete account of leadership behavior, it does explain a great deal (Cooper and Brady 1981). Leaders are often motivated by institutional responsibility because their broadened perspective naturally differs from that of backbenchers. Even when he was Minority Whip, Gingrich surprised many conservatives by agreeing to an "establishmentarian" measure that tightened ethics rules and increased congressional pay. Vin Weber, a Gingrich ally, observed in 1991 that there was "a tension between Newt and folks in the conservative movement. Conservatives want aggressive leadership, and when you are in the leadership, it moderates your style and to some extent your substance" (quoted in Connelly and Pitney 1994, 62).

In the majority, Gingrich has been an institution-shaper. He has redefined the Speaker's role in setting the public agenda and educating party elites about public policy and political strategy (Connelly 1996). Nevertheless, certain aspects of institutional context have lain ou tside his control and have imposed serious constraints on him.

One is the character of parties in the House. As Charles 0. Jones (1971, 221) wrote in his classic essay on the limits of leadership, congressional parties are coalitions, each of whose members has some bargaining power. The leader must tend to his coalition, watching for changes in sentiment and making the necessary adaptations. The current House majority is the smallest since the 1950s, so if Democrats are united, any Republican faction with more than ten members can deprive the party of a victory on a floor vote. With so many groups having so much leverage, the Speaker has to spend much of his time acting as a broker, a role that disappoints those who want him to be a revolutionary.

A second institutional constraint is divided government. Because they lack veto-proof majorities in either chamber, Republicans have only two ways of putting their ideas into law. One is to compromise with the Democrats, a prospect that disturbs the more confrontational House Republicans. The other is to "win the battle of ideas" and use public opinion to force the Democrats their way. With issues such as welfare reform, the latter strategy has had a real impact on public policy; however, President Clinton's skills have enabled the Democrats to reap much of the political credit. Unable to oust President Clinton, activist House Republicans vented their frustrations against their own leadership.

Bicameralism presents a third constraint, just as Madison intended. Federalist 51 says that bicameralism will remedy the "inconveniency" of legislative predominance by rendering the two chambers "as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit" (Rossiter 1961, 322). Baker neatly sums up the difference by distinguishing the House's "adversary democracy" from the Senate's more compromising "unitary democracy" (1989, 46-47). In the 104th Congress, the Senate deprived the House GOP leadership of bragging rights by failing to pass several elements of the Contract With America. In the 105th Congress, the two chambers have had different priorities on issues ranging from Medicare to the National Endowment for the Arts.

A fourth institutional constraint is the role of committees. Whichever party holds the majority, the leadership's priorities often clash with those of the committee chairs. New to power, the GOP chairs yielded authority to the leadership in the early days of the 104th Congress, but have since reclaimed much of it. Friction has resulted. In the spring of 1997, Majority Leader Armey wanted to add riders to a supplemental appropriations bill that included disaster relief. When Appropriations Chair Bob Livingston balked, Armey said that the idea that any appropriations bill "is the property of that committee and that committee alone is a supposition of course and could only provoke mischief' (quoted in Bradley 1997, 14). Armey thus irked the appropriators, who as Fenno observed a generation ago, like to regard themselves as independent policy leaders (Fenno 1973, 47). Armey got his way on the riders, which triggered a politicallydamaging veto fight with President Clinton. Gingrich then reached a bargain with the White House, which other GOP leaders deemed a surrender. Everyone in the GOP was dissatisfied.


Gingrich's favorite book is Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive, which contains a passage that sums up Gingrich's career: "Strong people always have strong weaknesses, too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys" (Drucker 1985, 72).

As the de facto leader of a con gressional minority fighting to over turn forty years of Democratic rule, Gingrich took risks and made enemies. He reached his goal, but the very boldness and aggressiveness that brought him to the Speakership has often hampered his exercise of power. In the past, he could get away with imprudent statements, but in the spotlight of the Speakership, his own words have often done him great harm. And his long history of harsh partisanship created a poisoned reservoir of animosity among House Democrats. They not only oppose him politically, they hate him personally. When his ethical care lessness gave them the opportunity, they tried to drive him from office, forcing him into a battle that ex hausted his political capital among his GOP colleagues.

In this case, social-exchange theory and common sense point to the same conclusion: such a leader faces a difficult position. To the extent that power-hunger drives congres sional behavior, it follows that others would seek to replace him, which is what happened in the abortive "coup" of July 1997. Majority Whip Tom DeLay took part in the effort, which is not surprising in hindsight since he and Gingrich "have a histo ry." In 1989, DeLay tried to block Gingrich's ascent to the leadership by serving as campaign manager for his opponent, Edward Madigan of Illinois.

Lacking the stature to seek the Speakership himself, DeLay sug gested that he would support some one else. A possible candidate would have been Armey, who has won respect for intelligence and intellectual consistency. That very consistency, however, would have handicapped him in holding together the party's ideological factions. So one thing that saved Gingrich was the absence of an obvious successor, but that would hardly sustain him indefinitely. After all, one cannot lean upon a vacuum.

Solving the Puzzle

The fate of the House GOP leaders may hinge on their ability to learn from James Madison.

As James Q. Wilson (1990) has argued, Madison's thought was based on balance and synthesis. A successful legislative leader understands that republican institutions must maintain a healthy tension between deliberation and interest, wisdom and consent, principle and prudence. Successful legislative leadership entails a balance or synergy between the establishmentarians and the revolutionaries, between compromise and conflict, accommodation and confrontation.

William Gavin, a long-time aide to the GOP leadership, once compared legislative politics to jazz. A soloist, he said, must be willing to take musical risks, but also needs a reliable accompaniment that sets the formal structure within which the creative leap can take place:

The same is true in House politics. The rock-solid political establishmentarian, setting the formal "rules of the game," and the soaring political revolutionary, guided, but not dominated, by the limits, need each other. If the establishment dominates the party, it becomes paralyzed and disintegrates, if the revolutionaries dominate, the party becomes wild and explodes. A great leader uses both elements, without letting either dominate for any length of time (quoted in Connelly and Pitney 1994, 163).

For Newt Gingrich and his House GOP leaders, the challenge is to steer between a seemingly insatiable revolutionary conservative populism and a complacent, go-along-to-get-along, self-perpetuating politics of stasis and incumbency protection. To succeed, Madison might suggest, Republicans need to be good republicans.


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