(5 of 19)
Gingrich called the moment "mystical, magical." More than any of his early wins, the romp through the first 100 days, the votes on tax cuts and regulatory reform, this one was hard, a truer measure of whether the new ecosystem he had created in the House would actually work the way he planned. "You can't, in a free society, postpone permanently major arguments," he says, " and the job of leadership is to manage it." That night he erased decades of habit in the House: the habits that members are more loyal to their supporters than to their Speaker, that the real work of Congress amounted to the horse trading of small favors in the committee room, that freshmen in Congress are about as powerful as the doorkeepers, that the House is where bold schemes come to die.
In the areas of his greatest success, it was Newt the professor at work, a careful student of power who recognized that if he hoped to change the world, he would need to change the Congress first. His problem was that the House was never intended to be very powerful; the Founding Fathers designed a legislative body that could boil over with parochial passions, only to be cooled by the sober Senate. Senators can filibuster; Presidents can veto. All the Speaker can do is create the appearance of momentum so that the rest of the government will get out of the way.
When Gingrich arrived in the House in 1979, he could see that the Republicans were a sorry lot, sorely in need of inspiration if they were ever to find their way out of the wilderness. The old minority leader, the sweetly irrelevant Bob Michel of Illinois, would greet freshly elected G.O.P. members with the revelation that "every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say to myself, 'Today you're going to be a loser.' And after you're here a while, you'll start to feel the same way. But don't let it bother you. You'll get used to it."
Gingrich refused to get used to it, and instead spent 10 full years methodically recruiting and training his own private army. "He was willing to go in and help these candidates that other people wouldn't touch," says conservative guru Paul Weyrich. "When they came here, who was it that they knew? Gingrich was their leader." Once he became Speaker, they supported all the House restructuring he proposed, not least because it gave them a more central role than any generation of congressional arrivistes in modern history.
Gingrich and the newcomers agreed that the gravest threat to the revolution came from the committee chairs. Even with Republicans in control, Gingrich's agenda could easily have been buried by chairmen who were damn well going to exercise the power they had finally won. So he scrapped the seniority system, to install as chairmen members who had proved their fealty, and then he packed the key committees with his acolytes, to make sure the chairmen behaved. He even required all members of the Appropriations Committee to sign an oath of loyalty to the Contract with America as a condition of serving. And he abolished three committees and 25 subcommittees and sliced staffs by a third, which made it harder for rivals to create their own mini-empires.