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Sean Theriault Headshot

Gingrich Disciples Reshape Senate in House's Image

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Now that the first wave of information from the Birthright debate has passed, it is time to examine the origins of this issue and others like it a bit more closely. Sen. Lindsey Graham first advocated changing the Constitution to rescind the automatic citizenship afforded any baby born in the United States. He quickly received the support of several Republicans, most prominently Arizona Republicans John McCain and John Kyl, to at least hold hearings on the issue. Neither Graham nor the others advocating hearings have provided any credible data to back up their unsubstantiated claims that "thousands" of expectant Mexican citizens are coming to the United States to have their babies to serve as "anchors" for the rest of their family. And their rhetoric represents another ugly chapter in the sporadic 150-year efforts to deny citizenship to immigrants or minorities. Graham, McCain, and Kyl share a certain pedigree that may explain their behavior in the U.S. Senate. They are all what I call "Gingrich Senators." Gingrich Senators include 33 former and current GOP lawmakers who served in the House of Representatives prior to their Senate careers. Furthermore, they were all elected to the House after 1978. The year, 1978, is so crucial because that was when Newt Gingrich was first elected to the U.S. House. The Georgia Republican reasoned that Republicans would only become the majority party in the House if they tore it down and rebuilt it in their own image. The Republican tsunami of 1994 that launched Gingrich into the Speaker's office proved he was correct. My research shows that these 31 senators (18 of whom are still serving) have had an incredible effect on the Senate. Based on all non-consensus roll call votes taken in the Senate, my research finds that they are nearly twice as conservative as their fellow Republicans. They are less likely than their fellow Republicans to support the confirmation of Democratic presidents' appointees and to work across the aisle to find legislative solutions. They are more likely to support filibusters than their fellow Republicans. To understand why today's Senate appears to be as cutthroat, as mean, and as caught up in the mess of partisanship as the House (not what the framers had intended), one needs look no further than the Gingrich Senators. Undoubtedly, some Democrats and some other Republicans can also be blamed for the squalor of the current Senate, but no other set of characteristics explain this behavior as well as those shared by the Gingrich Senators. Three examples from the past 18 months clearly show their impact:
  • Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) claimed last year that health care reform could be President Obama's "Waterloo". If the Republicans could stop Obama's health care plan, DeMint reasoned, they could stop Obama's entire agenda. Though his fellow Republicans at first repudiated DeMint, they eventually bought into it. In the end, not a single Republican in the House or the Senate voted for the final version of Obama's health care plan. DeMint is a Gingrich Senator.
  • Once President Obama got behind legislation to create a budget commission to look at reducing the deficit, Republican co-sponsors of the bill began opposing it. Even though the Republican sponsor, Judd Gregg (R-NH), supported the final passage of the bill, seven fellow Republican co-sponsors voted against it (had all seven voted for it, the bill would have passed). Five of them (Sam Brownback, Mike Crapo, John Ensign, Jim Inhofe, and McCain) are Gingrich Senators.
  • Early this year, Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) single-handedly delayed the Senate from extending unemployment benefits. Bunning, like DeMint, was ridiculed by Republicans for his strategy -- a strategy that all the Republicans (save the two senators from Maine) adopted in the past two months. Jim Bunning is a Gingrich Senator.
The Gingrich Senators, as a group, are distinct. Ten of the 11 senators who voted against Obama initiatives most frequently in 2009 were Gingrich Senators. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ongoing birthright debate is that it was not initiated by a Tom Coburn, David Vitter, Rick Santorum, or George Allen (all Gingrich Senators), but instead it was initiated by three senators -- Graham, McCain and Kyl -- who have long reputations of working with Democrats but whose recent rhetoric suggests they still look and act like their fellow Gingrich Senators. Some might say the Gingrich Senators have merely brought the Senate into the modern age in which partisanship is an inherent part of politics. I think the framers would disagree. The Senate chamber -- where cool heads were to prevail, where what was best for the entire United States was supposed to triumph, and where the members were supposed to be Americans first and partisans second -- has become swallowed up by the party polarization that now consumes Washington, D.C. Sean Theriault is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin and author, most recently, of Party Polarization in Congress. He is currently working on a book about the impact of the Gingrich Senators.
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