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GOP’s congressional run comes to close

Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress Saturday with a near-empty Capitol, closing the door on a dozen years of nearly unbroken GOP control by spending more time in the final days lamenting their failures than reliving their successes. [!]
Dennis Hastert
Outgoing House Speaker Dennis Hastert walks to his office in Washington on Friday. “We have been successful,” he said as Republicans ended their 12-year run a spower brokers on Capitol Hill.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Demoralized Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress at 5 a.m. yesterday with a near-empty Capitol, closing the door on a dozen years of nearly unbroken GOP control by spending more time in the final days lamenting their failures -- to rein in government, tame the deficit and temper their own lust for power -- than reliving their successes.

Still reeling from their electoral defeat Nov. 7, Republicans capped an era of conservative ascendance with the passage of business tax break extensions, a package of trade measures, and legislation to stave off cuts to physician payments they once trumpeted in their budget-cutting drive.

While GOP leaders touted their handiwork, it was a far cry from 12 years ago when the Republicans swept to power with the zeal of self-described revolutionaries and a mission to shrink the size of government, limit its reach, strengthen the nation's security and end an era of a privileged, imperial Congress.

"Together, we reformed welfare. We cut taxes, and small businesses grew all over the nation," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a late-night, farewell address. "We promised to protect this nation from further attack, and by grace of God and with the leadership of President Bush, we have been successful."

‘Tired of our hypocrisy’
But beyond Hastert's speech, a conclusion punctuated by the release of a scathing House ethics committee report on the Mark Foley-House page scandal and last-minute budget squabbles yielded more recriminations than congratulations.

"You know, the American people took the reins of government away from the Republican party . . . in this last election. They did so, I think, in large part because they were tired of our hypocrisy," fumed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) from the Senate floor. "Our leadership and some of our members grew arrogant in their own power, and with arrogance comes corruption," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member of the class of 1994.

"We came to change Washington, and Washington changed us," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

As they grapple with defeat, Republicans seem to have difficulty taking stock of their 12 years in power, but those years had enormous impact. Republican Congresses fundamentally changed the welfare system, cut taxes time and again, expanded the powers of the government to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Gauging progress on their Contract
Combing through the fine print of 1994 "Contract With America" campaign manifesto, one finds goals that Americans now largely take for granted. Congressional committee chairmen, who once built empires from inviolable perches, are now term limited. The contract anticipated a lucrative tax credit for each child, the end of a tax penalty on marriage, federal incentives for adoption, the elimination of limits on the amount seniors could earn and still receive their Social Security benefits and some curbs on civil litigation. The overriding political fear of tax increases, still evident as Democrats move to resume control, can be seen as a conservative victory, as can a minimum wage that has grown increasingly irrelevant after nearly a decade without change.

Yet measured against the ambitions of 1994, not much has changed. The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee might be no more, but the departments of commerce, education and energy, once slated for the chopping block, are still very much alive, as are the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Dems take their own parting shots
Compared with the size of the economy, government discretionary spending has actually grown. The vision of a term-limited Congress of everymen, rotating through Washington after short stints, has all but vanished. And government programs such as Medicare and federal education bureaucracies are larger and more pervasive.

"It's a mixed bag," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the architect of the 1994 revolution. "In a three-year period, we changed things fairly dramatically. We, candidly, then failed."

Democrats were harsher -- but only by degrees. Former Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) pointed with disdain to former president Bill Clinton's impeachment, the Iraq war, the yawning federal debt, "a complete breakdown on oversight as well as civility," corruption and a "willingness to cede most of their authority as an equal branch of government" to the Bush administration.

"One would have to search long and hard through history to find a dozen years more disastrous than that," Daschle said.

An era of fits and starts
Compared with the liberal ascendancy, which ran from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and arguably Ronald Reagan's election, the conservative era has been brief and relatively inconsequential, said Julian Zelizer, a Boston University congressional historian. Nothing in the past 12 years compares with the creation of Social Security or Medicare, the voting rights and civil rights acts or the Marshall Plan, or even Dwight D. Eisenhower's interstate highway system. Nor were any of those big-government achievements fundamentally altered.

Far from ending an imperial Congress, Republicans centralized power in their leadership to an unprecedented level.

Even some successes -- such as a balanced budget and the diminution of farm subsidies -- proved short-lived, GOP lawmakers and former leaders conceded.

Taking note of GOP achievements
Republicans did take pride in a few achievements. In numerous interviews, virtually every lawmaker pointed to the 1996 welfare overhaul as the pinnacle of Republican achievement, followed closely by the 1997 balanced-budget agreement, which introduced private-sector competition to Medicare and helped yield a federal budget surplus the next year. In a memo to fellow Republicans, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) pointed to lower tax rates on income and investments, education laws that expanded parental school choice and targeted funding to schools that succeed, the expansion of free trade, the confirmation of conservative judges and Supreme Court justices, and laws to help pursue terrorists and strengthen the military.

"The common thread through all of these achievements is the Republican commitment to individual freedom, personal responsibility, and accountable government," Boehner wrote.

But in general, Republicans were in no mood to cheer. Instead, they took turns trying to pinpoint where things went wrong. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who came to the House in the class of 1994, pointed to setting supposedly strict spending caps in the 1997 budget deal, only to break them in 1998. Former House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) took the same vein when he fingered the summer of 1997 and the first emergency spending bill that was not offset with equivalent spending cuts.

"That was the day we said: 'Discipline is too hard, too demanding. It makes people mad that have volatile tempers, and we're just not going to do it anymore,' " Armey said.

‘We’ll be back’
Medicare Wamp had his specific moment, June 27, 2003, when emissaries from the GOP leadership woke him in the middle of the night, pleading with him to change his vote against the Medicare prescription drug bill, the largest entitlement expansion since the creation of Medicare. House leaders kept the vote open more than an hour, setting a record as they twisted arms, threatened and even told one member that political support for his son was at stake.

"It looked like we were in the back pockets of the prescription drug companies, and some of us were," Wamp said, concluding that Republican leaders had forgotten about conservative principals and cared only for the preservation of power.

"If [former House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay said it one time, he said it 15 times: 'The most important thing we can do for the American people is keep our Republican majority,' " Wamp recalled. "That was just wrong, and it had to catch up to us in the end."

The leaders of the revolution agreed that the past 12 years hardly cemented the conservative visions of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and the class of 1994. But Armey said that it is far too early to close the books on a conservative era.

"I still expect to see a fourth golden moment in my lifetime," he said. "We've got a bit of a setback here, but we're going to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger. We'll be back."