In addition to the normal obituaries, the death of former Speaker of the House Jim Wright yesterday has set off a round of breast beating about the decline of civility in American politics. Wright’s forced resignation in 1989 as the House Ethics Committee prepared to rule on charges of accepting improper gifts from a political supporter is widely seen as the seminal moment in our political history when the culture of the Capitol changed forever. The taking down of Wright by a bold group of members of the heretofore powerless and quiescent Republican minority caucus led by Newt Gingrich is regarded as the tipping point when the old go-along-to-get-along style of Congressional life was transformed into the cutthroat hyper-partisan ethos that typifies the dysfunctional nature of DC politics today. But while Wright’s small band of admirers are entitled to celebrate a man whose take-no-prisoners style of leadership did as much as Gingrich to make Washington an even nastier place that it was before, let’s not waste too much time mourning the pre-Wright/Gingrich era of Congress. We may not like the way it works today but change was both inevitable and necessary.
Even author John Barry, whose largely admiring book about Wright’s reign in Congress was adapted for a piece published today in Politico magazine about the former speaker, admits that his ruthless tactics embittered an otherwise placid Republican leadership. Up until that moment, the Republicans looked like a permanent minority in the House having only run it for four years (1946-48 and 1952-54) since 1930. It was Gingrich and his pack of hard-boiled conservatives that refused to roll over and play dead that changed things as well as creating a new reality in which the GOP has run the House for all but four years since 1994. Part of that effort was a willingness to mix it up with a Democratic majority that was complacent and often corrupt in the easygoing manner that used to characterize Congressional life.
In his farewell address to the House, Wright castigated his tormentors that had rooted out evidence of shady dealings as a pack of cannibals who threatened to turn “vilification” and “negative campaigning” into permanent factors in politics. Though he had done much to undermine the quiet civility of the institution, he urged his listeners to heed his fate and not let it be repeated. This sounds prescient to a lot of people who today lament the same factors that have made bipartisanship rare in Congress. After the last 25 years of scorched earth tactics employed by both parties, this permanent warfare between Democrats and Republicans is believed to have soured Americans on politics as well as preventing Congress from doing the nation’s work.
But such pious platitudes tell us nothing about what was wrong with politics in Jim Wright’s time and even less about today’s problems.
Despite the impulse to paint the pre-Gingrich era as a time of halcyon bipartisan comity, that’s a myth. If the parties were not at each other’s throats as much as they are today it’s because leading members on both sides of the aisle were complicit in a political culture that allowed incumbents to grow fat on deal making that feathered each party’s nest while not doing much for the country. The only remedy to this casual and accepted corruption was a stiff dose of partisanship that added a measure of accountability to a Congress that had long since come to believe that it was above the law.
Moreover, the notion that a Washington dominated by centrist Democrats and Republicans was better at doing the country’s business is an even bigger myth. In practice all that meant was a Congress in which the liberal Democrat leadership could always count on liberal and moderate Republicans to go along with their whims with minimal protest. What Gingrich and his friends did was to set the stage for the birth of a conservative caucus whose goal was not share in the booty to be had in promoting a bloated big government. Instead, their purpose was to reduce the size of government that could only be fed by more taxes and even greater spending intended to bribe the voters into perpetuating this dismal scheme.
Stopping this gravy train hasn’t been easy and Republicans, specifically the ones who led Congress during much of the George W. Bush administration, eventually succumbed to the same big spending temptations. They were in turn defeated in 2006 before the party returned to their small government roots for big wins in 2010 and 2014 that won them back control of Congress.
It’s also true that Gingrich was toppled from his perch as Speaker by the same kind of vengeful ethics criticism that allowed him to take Wright’s scalp. But rather than lamenting how awful it was for both of these men to be taken down in this measure, we should be celebrating a system that could hold even figures as powerful as Wright and Gingrich liable for their actions. Rather than denounce those who go after such people, we should be cheering efforts that bring a much-needed spirit of accountability to Capitol Hill. Congressional leaders should be afraid of being caught in unethical behavior. That isn’t cannibalism; it’s democracy. Instead of singing dirges for the decline of civility, we should be worried about the ever-present danger of allowing a permanent political class to take power in Congress intent on profiting from legislative pork that robs the taxpayers. If the only alternative to that is more partisanship than we should be cheering those preparing the pot to boil up Speakers and other politicians who want to emulate Jim Wright.