Remember 1994

Posted: Jan 26, 2006 12:05 AM

Recently, a congressman who I recall as just another a name on a list of freshmen that was part of our "Contract With America" GOP takeover (in my days as political chair for Newt Gingrich) lamented the fact that people back in his district seemed more interested in things like a best-selling book promoting the "Fair Tax" than in "changing Washington."

The statement from Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn) reminded me just how far apart many Republican members of Congress really are in terms of priorities and, more importantly, reality.

Rather than "Wamp" up on the congressman over his dismissal of this popular proposal (put forth in a book that debuted in the top spot on The New York Times Best Seller list), I'd rather take a trip down memory lane and recount an idea Mr. Wamp and many of his colleagues were touting back when they were the bright-eyed candidates of reform.

Way back in 1994, many of our Republican candidates were attacking a "corrupt Congress" made up of entrenched, pork-spending Democrat leaders who had held their seats for decades and were out of touch with the American people. The reformers pointed to the questionable dealings of former Speaker Jim Wright, who was essentially run out of office, and the strong-arm tactics of the then top Democrat leaders in the House.

Sound familiar?

The fact is, Wamp and his colleagues, who shocked the nation by taking control of the House in the '94 elections, did indeed deliver a strong conservative agenda and even put rules into effect that limited the number of years a member could serve as chairman of a committee. In fact, many of those eager, new reformists who hit Washington like a breath of fresh air declared that they would create self-imposed term limits on the years they would serve in the House. Rep. Wamp was one of those who made such a declaration. Now, 12 years down the road, not only does Mr. Wamp feel it lamentable that a revolutionary means of bringing sanity to our tax system is on the minds of his constituents, but, lo and behold, he is seeking to become one of his own party's top leaders as Republican members consider playing fruit basket turnover in wake of the legal problems facing their most recent majority leader, Tom DeLay.

But how could this be? Rep. Wamp wasn't even supposed to be in the House this year. He had pledged to limit himself to six two-year terms. Well, he has a simple explanation for that. In a recently published report Wamp declared: "The blunt truth is I made a mistake" in pledging to limit his service in Congress to 12 years. Well, Congressman, don't worry, you aren't alone. But Wamp also isn't alone in failing to recognize that the GOP is in serious danger of losing control of the Congress next year if members don't start moving with lightning speed in addressing the impatience of their own base. Public opinion surveys show that people (even many Republicans) want viciously tough ethics reform and that the backlash toward those once bright-eyed freshmen is starting to create a "throw the bums out" sort of mood.

Rep. Wamp, and his colleagues who otherwise feel safe in their current districts, need to be concerned not just about vulnerable Republicans losing next November, but also how strong and unexpected opposition from fed-up and ambitious activists in their own backyard, from their own party, could hurt them. Admittedly, both Congress and the president have finally started to listen to the demands for curbing out-of-control spending. And members of both the House and Senate from the miracle "Class of 1994" (including Wamp) have cast many a good vote over the years -- from reducing capital gains taxes to facing down the terrorist threats. But dismissing the author of a No. 1 best seller as "an entertainer," and the Fair Tax idea as "lamentable," Mr. Wamp ignores the fact that people bought this book because they are starving for real reform.

No one is amused over matters related to the Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the more astute are not blind to the fact that no houses have been dusted, much less cleaned, so far, in Congress. Perhaps the GOP class of 1994 might consider the fact that term limits in states such as Florida, where it is now against the law for a lobbyist to buy a lawmaker so much as a lunch, have seemed to work well.

It might be time to let a new crop of Republicans stand in the place of this now entrenched group of "leaders" for the sake of preserving the GOP's hold on Congress and the principle of reform. I used to sit in the back of the room upon occasion while Newt would meet with these inspiring freshmen. They were idealistic; I was cynical. I thought them naive, and marveled then at how little they really knew. Now, 12 years later, I'm thinking that perhaps they've come a little too far.