Washington Post Feature On House GOP Freshmen Omits Key Historical Context

Today's Washington Post feature on the House Republican freshman class probably seems rather familiar to anyone who remembers the GOP class of 1994.

The Post describes the current freshman class as revolutionaries who have “found a way to run the House,” explaining that their “willingness to do things their way stems from their hyper-confident vision of themselves.” The freshmen, we are told, describe their jobs as a “calling,” and we are told that “more than three dozen freshmen … had never held elected office,” including former talk-radio host Blake Farenthold. Because the freshmen aren't career politicians, but rather ordinary citizens, they say “that they don't mind turning some people off, or even losing reelection.” The Post quotes freshmen saying things like “The job just doesn't mean that much to me. I'm loyal to my word, and in the end I think that's what I'll be judged on.”

What the Post doesn't do is mention the remarkable similarity between all of that and the class of '94.

Here's an August 14, 1995 Washington Post piece on the class of 1994:

Many of the 73 Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives do not look like Republicans. They don't look like politicians, even. They look like people.

About half of the Republican freshmen had never held elective office. They are not the usual lawyers turned state legislators turned congressmen. Their resumes say: doctor, home builder, rancher, real estate broker, school superintendent, has-been pop singer, homemaker. Gil Gutknecht is an auctioneer. Tom Latham owns a seed company. Mark Souder owns a general store. Frank Cremeans owns a concrete supply company. Charlie Norwood is a retired dentist. George Radanovich is a vintner.

They will tell you they are the genuine Mr.-Smiths-going-to-Washington. They have their mandate. Their greatest strength is their innocence in the conventions of the Hill. They don't know how things have always been done, and they frankly don't care.

And a January 2, 1996 Post article:

[T]his session was driven mainly by the energy, resolute commitment and conservative ideology of the 73 House freshmen elected in the 1994 GOP landslide, who often outstripped even their mentor Gingrich in their zealous determination to end the welfare state and cut Washington down to size. They campaigned against “go-along-to-get-along” compromises in 1994; in 1995, they voted against them with remarkable unanimity.

“The fact that we tried to do what we said we'd do really did set a new standard,” said freshman Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.).

The similarities between today's Post article and mid-1990s coverage of the class of '94 are striking. Today's article would have been better had it contained an indication that this “we aren't politicians, we're regular folks” image the current freshman class is projecting is exactly the image previous Republican politicians have adopted in similar circumstances. Even more importantly, the Post should have noted how things played out for the Republicans first elected in 1994.

Here's a December 10, 2006 Post article that ran shortly after the GOP lost control of Congress:

While GOP leaders touted their handiwork, it was a far cry from 12 years ago when the Republicans swept to power with the zeal of self-described revolutionaries and a mission to shrink the size of government, limit its reach, strengthen the nation's security and end an era of a privileged, imperial Congress.

“You know, the American people took the reins of government away from the Republican Party . . . in this last election. They did so, I think, in large part because they were tired of our hypocrisy,” fumed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) from the Senate floor. “Our leadership and some of our members grew arrogant in their own power, and with arrogance comes corruption,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member of the class of 1994.

“We came to change Washington, and Washington changed us,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Yet measured against the ambitions of 1994, not much has changed. The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee might be no more, but the departments of commerce, education and energy, once slated for the chopping block, are still very much alive, as are the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Compared with the size of the economy, government discretionary spending has grown. The vision of a term-limited Congress of everymen, rotating through Washington after short stints, has all but vanished. And government programs such as Medicare and federal education bureaucracies are larger and more pervasive.

Far from ending an imperial Congress, Republicans centralized power in their leadership to an unprecedented level.

There's nothing wrong with running an article about the freshman Republicans' portrayal of themselves. But the Post omitted important context: The fact that the last big Republican freshman class portrayed itself exactly the same way -- and ended up behaving like typical Republican politicians.