Steny Hoyer explains how Newt Gingrich broke Congress

On Monday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer delivered a startling speech on the obstructionism of minority Republicans and the dangers that poses to Congress and the country. It's not common for politicians to address structural problem directly, or at length. It's certainly not common for congressional leadership to do so. But Hoyer, who is generally regarded as an old-fashioned moderate, is worried about the institution he serves. We spoke by phone earlier Thursday.

It's a bit abnormal for a sitting majority leader to deliver a policy speech lambasting his colleagues. What led to this address?

What prompted me to do this was that Roy Blunt and I are good friends, and Roy was leading the GOP's health-care task force. So back in March or April, I asked Roy to send over areas where he thought we could work together to fashion this bill. And, frankly, Roy was not able to, I think because he felt his caucus was not prepared to do that.

The reality of the Congress today is that the Republican base has become narrower and narrower as we have won their moderate seats. New York 23 was the perfect example, where the Republican nominee was too moderate for the party and so they forced her out of the race and lost. But when you're just dealing in a realm of 258 votes you have to fashion your compromises based simply on the views of one party. You don’t have the leavening effect of having a broader opportunity to fashion legislation that has a broader constituency.

So what do you do about it?

I didn’t come up with solutions because there aren’t any. The solutions are really elusive. As long as the base of the Republican Party is as narrow as it is, it will demand rigidity of its leadership. In my own state, Wayne Gilchrist, who voted right down the line with Republicans on economic issues but diverged on choice and guns and environment, was knocked off in a primary by a Club for Growth candidate. And then they lost the seat.

This all seems much harder because it's not clear that minority obstructionism is bad politics. Back in the early 1990s, of course, Bill Kristol, among others, urged Republicans to kill the Clinton health-care bill. Not modify it, or improve it, or amend it, but kill it. And then they picked up more than 50 seats.

Newt Gingrich was of course the chief proponent of that policy, and he and Bob Michel, who was leader of the Republicans, disagreed. And Gingrich eventually succeeded in pushing Michel out. Michel’s view was you sit down, offer your input, and move forward. The theory was that the American people elected the legislative body to make policy and so you make policy. Gingrich’s proposition, and maybe accurately, was that as long as you, Bob Michel, and our party cooperate with Democrats and get 20 or 30 percent of what we want and they get to say they solved the problem and had a bipartisan bill, there's no incentive for the American people to change leadership. You have to confront, delay, and undermine and impose failure in order to move the public. To some degree, he was proven right in 1994.

Haven't majority leaders been complaining about the intransigence of minority members since the country was founded? What's different now?

This is a United States Senate that has had more cloture votes in one year than in the '60s and '70s combined. They had three cloture votes on whether to extend unemployment benefits, and that bill passed 97-0! The reason this issue needs to be raised is that, ultimately, the political representatives will respond to the demands of the public. Now, the public has been polarized. Every night on television, they listen to polarizing people. We’ve gone from Walter Cronkite to angrier people who are trying to incite them.

So how do you fight that political logic?

It's very difficult. The motivation Congress has on each side of the aisle is to be in the majority so it can set policy. But it’s very difficult for the institution to move forward on a bipartisan basis when the minority party does not believe that that’s in their best interest to regain the majority. Rarely do you get a crowd ecstatic about a compromise. So the parties, to some degree, think the Gingrich strategy might be successful. And the only way to overcome that is to have it not be successful, and the only way for that to happen is for the American people to know what’s going on.

Posted in