As Yogi Berra famously said in another context, "It's déjà vu all over again," which is the way I look at the 112th Congress as it convenes this week.
That's because things have come full cycle since November 1994, when House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, and boasting an historic blueprint for change called the Contract with America, took control of the 104th Congress after 40 years in the political wilderness.
I remember it well, as I was editor of The Hill, which had started publication only six weeks earlier, when the 104th Congress convened on Jan. 4, 1995, as Republicans took over both houses of Congress by capturing 54 House seats and eight Senate seats, The Hill's banner headline said it all: "It's reigning Republicans." (The headline was suggested by one of our young reporters, Jennifer Senior, now a feature writer for New York Magazine.)
The issue featured a large photo of Gingrich, bearing the caption, "ready to lead the Republican revolution." A subhead proclaimed, "GOP sets the stage for historic reforms," which the article said were "designed to transform Congress into a more accountable and open institution, and to set the stage for what [House Republicans] hope will be a major realignment in American politics and government."
The article accurately described the new political landscape: "In an atmosphere of euphoria and chaos, exuberant House Republicans, including 73 reform-minded freshmen, prepared to show a cynical public that they are capable of carrying out the promises of the Contract with America, and of governing as the majority party."
But the new Republican conference chairman, Ohio Congressman John Boehner, cautioned his fellow Republicans that their work was just beginning. "We're going to open the process wider than anyone in this room has ever seen, but we still have to govern," he said. "And it's a judgment call on where you draw the line."
Although Gingrich soon fulfilled his promise of bringing all ten of the Contract with America's provisions -- including term limits for members, welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment -- to a vote, the "Republican revolution" soon ran out of steam as he was blamed for a threatened government shutdown in 1996 that helped reelect President Clinton. Then, in 1977, he was undermined by an internal revolt and attempted coup led by DeLay, Bill Paxon and Boehner, among others. (The Hill got its first big scoop by breaking the story.)
By 1998, Gingrich, who had led the impeachment proceedings against Clinton, had become a polarizing figure whose approval rating was in the dumps, and Republicans lost five House seats in November, the most for a party not holding the presidency in 64 years, as Clinton easily won reelection. And while Gingrich was reelected to an 11th term, he announced he would not stand for Speaker and would give up his seat as well, and he resigned in January of 1999.
House Republicans chose Louisiana Congressman Bob Livingston as Gingrich's successor, but he was sidelined by a personal scandal involving an extramarital affair and didn't take office. DeLay then engineered the selection of Dennis Hastert of Illinois as the new Speaker. Keeping a lower profile than Gingrich, he presided over Clinton's impeachment by the House and then performed credibly throughout President George W. Bush's first six years in office.
In June, 2006, Hastert became the longest serving Speaker since fellow Illinoisan Joe Cannon, and won an 11th term in November, but Republicans lost the majority in the 110th Congress, and Nancy Pelosi took over as Speaker. The following November, he resigned his seat and returned to private life.
Figuring this would be a useful reminder of how no one party or administration ever achieves permanent power in our two-party system, I gave Boehner a copy of The Hill's "It's reigning Republicans" issue last month. I had substituted his photo for that of Gingrich and changed the date to January 3, 2011, telling him that in order to save time and money, The Hill was simply going to recycle the 1995 front page, and wished him luck.
If I'd thought of it, I also would have told him to remember another bit of sage advice from Yogi Berra as Boehner tries to help House Republicans, many of the members of the Tea Party, try to keep their promise to cut spending and reduce the deficit. "When you come to a fork in the road," Yogi said, "take it."