The Gingrich Republicans won control of Congress with the hot rhetoric popular on talk radio. Now they can't help but govern the same way. Only a day after the Republicans passed the balanced-budget amendment in the House, Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas dominated the headlines with a slur. Speaking on Friday to a group of radio reporters, he had this to say about Barney Frank, an annoyingly effective gadfly in the Democratic ranks: "I like peace and quiet, and I don't need to listen to Barney Fag, Barney Frank, haranguing in my ear."
The Democrats, especially a new group that has learned to mimic Republicantactics, were gleefully indignant, callingArmey a "bully" and accusing the Republicans of creating an atmosphere of "meanness and intolerance." Armey apologized to Frank, but he accused the press of creating a "firestorm" out of a "fumble" that didn't even rise to the level of a "Freudian slip." Armey's comment "may not have been at the tip of his tongue," responded Frank, who is openly gay, "but it was certainly lurking at the back of his mind." The nightly news shows were so entranced with this name-calling that they breezed past the fact that the Senate had just passed a key element of the "Contract With America" -- a bill to prevent Congress from imposing rules on states without providing the money to pay for it.
Shouting matches have become routine on the House floor. Last week, Bob Dornan, a congressman from California sometimes called "B-1 Bob" for his bombs-away tactics, as well as for his sponsorship of the warplane once built in his home district, was briefly exiled from the floor for accusing President Clinton of "aiding and abetting the enemy" as a "three-time" draft dodger during Vietnam. Dornan did not mind: he had several radio interviews waiting, and he knew his hit on Clinton would be constantly rebroadcast on television.
These distracting sideshows are worse than a nuisance to Speaker Gingrich, who is trying to maintain discipline and focus. He has himself partly to blame: it was he who, as a Republican backbencher in the 1980s, transformed "one minutes," the practice of allowing members to speak for 60 seconds on any subject, into a blunt propaganda tool. Until Gingrich came along, one minutes had been innocuous, used to praise Flag Day or celebrate a constituent's birthday. Gingrich saw the power of explosive sound bites as soon as C-Span began televising congressional debate.
Most of the 73 GOP freshman congressmen -- a third of the Republican members -- aren't as bombastic as Dornan or as bitter as Armey. They are often earnest and shy around the press. But they tend to be fiercely ideological and unyielding. One group of about 15 new lawmakers, calling themselves "the New Federalists," meets two mornings a week at 7:30 to plot the possible abolition of entire federal agencies, such as Education, Energy, EPA, HUD, Commerce. Democratic Congressman Ed Markey referred to them in one private strategy session as "the Shiites." (The freshmen are strongly religious: attendance at a congressional Bible class is up fivefold.) Typical of the breed is South Carolina Rep. Joe Scarborough, 31, who is so obsessed with dismantling government that he works on almost nothing else, and has had to be scolded about missing committee meetings.
Gingrich has to worry that these radicals will outrun his own revolution. The real threat last week to the balanced-budget amendment came not from Democrats but from dogmatic freshmen who were insisting on a rule in the amendment requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes -- or no amendment at all. Facing embarrassment to the party, the GOP leaders talked privately of employing an old Democratic form of party discipline -- "breaking their arms." Gingrich was finally able to talkthe renegades into backing down -- but he knows that more confrontations await. Last week he had to beseech the National Rifle Association to hold off on pushing for the repeal of a ban on assault weapons until after the GOP contract passes in mid-April. The NRA complied, but some of the gun zealots among the freshmen may push ahead anyway, threatening a floor fight and veto showdown with President Clinton.
The freshmen insist they will not become Washington insiders. They could be wrong: they had already accepted almost $200,000 in PAC contributions from various interest groups in the three weeks after theirNovember election. But mosthave decided not to move their families to Washington. Last week, one of them, a black conservative from Oklahoma named Julius Caesar (J.C.) Watts, sat at a banquet table warily watching an annual press bash for Congress. "All I know," he said, turning over his wineglass and folding his arms, "is that on Friday nights I want to be back in my bed in Norman and in my own church on Sundays." If the Republicans stick to the contract, term limits will send them home permanently after a few years. If they don't, they figure, the voters will send them home sooner.