Thirty years ago today, a heated argument between Democrats and Republicans raged on the House floor. The two primary antagonists were Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and Newt Gingrich -- and when it was over the latter was nearly as well-known in this country as the former.
The donnybrook, which lasted over several days, was ostensibly about U.S. foreign policy. But what was really at stake was which political party controlled the microphone in the House of Representatives -- and in this country. And a look back at the extraordinary discussion reminds us that today’s partisanship is not a new phenomenon.
In 1978, Newt Gingrich was elected on his third try in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. He was described, presciently, by the Almanac of American Politics as “a pesky, persistent Republican opponent.”
When Gingrich arrived in Washington, the longstanding practice of the House was to allow members to give lengthy speeches at the end of a legislative day on pet projects of their choosing. Usually, these “special orders,” as they were known, related to some trivial matter involving constituent service back home.
But Newt Gingrich’s pet project was to provoke a national debate about whether Republicans should be a permanent minority or Capitol Hill -- and, well, to simply provoke Democrats. Robert Walker, a like-minded GOP congressman elected one term earlier than Gingrich, had started using special orders for a broader, more ideological purpose. Although the special orders were usually delivered to an empty House chamber, it wasn’t as though no one saw them. C-SPAN had started broadcasting, and hundreds of thousands of Americans could hear Walker and Gingrich and others make their case for conservatism.
At the end of a legislative day -- one in which Republicans typically had little real say-so -- Walker would say to one of his like-minded friends, “Let’s go do a couple of hours of special orders.” The Democrats noticed, and some were willing to meet the challenge by debating the Republican upstarts. “We’d been getting on their nerves,” Walker noted later.
Not surprisingly, Gingrich warmed to the new environment. As brilliant political writer Peter Boyer later observed: “Nothing was so sweet a piece of happenstance as the arrival of Gingrich and C-SPAN in the House of Representatives at the same moment. They were made for each other.”
It was Tip O’Neill who had finally acquiesced to Brian Lamb’s idea to broadcast the House’s deliberations, but the speaker was slower to grasp the ethos of the new medium than were the young Republicans -- and he always seemed a step behind Gingrich, in particular.
When O’Neill ordered the C-SPAN cameras to pan over an empty House, he thought the American people would see what he saw: that the Republicans’ special order speeches were a stunt -- and a misuse of House rules. Instead, O’Neill came across as heavy-handed. Conservative commentators even turned it around on him: Why were Democrats not in their seats, doing their jobs?
Another of O’Neill’s complaints was that Gingrich and his young guns criticized the actions of Democratic members without informing them beforehand so the latter could be present. Unfortunately for him, when O’Neill went to the House floor himself to lambast Gingrich, he hadn’t notified the Georgia Republican, who wasn’t in Washington that day.
This set up the May 15, 1984 showdown. What had so infuriated O’Neill and his top lieutenants (Jim Wright of Texas, David Obey of Wisconsin, Tom Downey of New York and Ron Dellums of California) were two lines of attack made that week by Gingrich and the Republicans. The first focused on a “Dear Commandante Ortega” letter that the Democrats had sent to Nicaraguan leftist leader Daniel Ortega seeking peace talks.
The second was a GOP critique of Democratic foreign policy that used Democrats’ previous words in a host of conflicts -- ranging from Cambodia to Grenada -- against them. The Democrats, Gingrich asserted, “were blind to communism.”
O’Neill rose to rebuke Gingrich. “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism,” he said. “It is the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”
O’Neill didn’t know it immediately -- in fact, neither did Gingrich, who started to respond -- but the speaker had gone too far: He’d personally criticized a member in violation of House rules. Bob Walker and GOP Whip Rep. Trent Lott jumped to their feet and made a point of order: to “take down” O’Neill’s words.
This meant to strike them from the record, the first such rebuke of a speaker since 1798. This was front-page news and led the nightly network news shows. Newt Gingrich was famous. And thanks to C-SPAN, nothing can really be stricken from the record: O’Neill’s outburst can be seen here.