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Washington gridlock is Gingrich's legacy

By Sean Theriault, Special to CNN
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed December 21, 2011
Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, at a grocery store for a campaign stop in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Tuesday.
Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, at a grocery store for a campaign stop in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sean Theriault: Newt Gingrich's first ad in Iowa suggests he's ready to end partisan deadlock
  • But partisan antics have been his signature strategy since 1979, says Theriault
  • Gingrich became a master at using the legislative process to achieve political goals, he says
  • Theriault: Some who served with Gingrich in House spread his partisan strategy to Senate

Editor's note: Sean Theriault is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "The Power of the People: Congressional Competition, Public Attention, and Voter Retribution."

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- The current squabbling between the House and the Senate on the payroll tax cut extension perfectly epitomizes why congressional approval is in the single digits. Highlighting this debacle, Newt Gingrich ends his first television ad in Iowa proclaiming that by "working together, we can and will rebuild the America we love."

Expecting Newt Gingrich to work together with Democrats and Republicans to end the partisan deadlock in Washington is a bit like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop.

When Gingrich entered the House of Representatives in 1979, he quickly became the leader of a group of insurgent conservatives whose chief aim was a Republican Party majority. Gingrich's partisan antics not only transformed the House, but the Senate as well. Washington has not been the same since.

Even from his first term, when he tried to get Rep. Charles Diggs kicked out of the House (despite his re-election after being convicted of 29 felonies), it became clear that Gingrich would use every Democratic misstep and every legislative opportunity to portray the House in the worst possible light. It was only in tearing down the House that Gingrich thought that it could be rebuilt in the Republicans' -- or perhaps, his -- own image.

Sean Theriault
Sean Theriault

To Gingrich's credit, the Democratic leadership was always ready to misstep and then meet him in the partisan mud. Whether it was his fight with Speaker Tip O'Neill about who controlled the television cameras in the House or his relentless pursuit of Speaker Jim Wright's sweetheart book deal, Gingrich would not back down from a fight even if at first it appeared the evidence was against him.

Gingrich became a master at using the legislative process to achieve his political goals. This strategy from Gingrich's House days is, of course, well known. What is less well known is that members who previously served with Gingrich in the House spread these highly partisan tactics to the Senate.

I am writing a book about these senators, who I call "Gingrich senators," because they so seamlessly infected the Senate with the same hyper-partisanship that pervaded the House. Since Gingrich's first election to the House, 40 Republicans have entered the House and then moved on to the Senate. Twenty-two of them continue to serve in the Senate, including Jim DeMint, John McCain, Jim Inhofe and David Vitter. Their alumni include Rick Santorum, Phil Gramm and George Allen.

These senators learned well the lessons that Gingrich taught them in the House. Jon Kyl, the first Gingrich senator to rise to an important party leadership position, had been a supporter of any and all tax cuts until Obama announced his desire to extend the payroll tax reduction. Kyl was among the first Senate Republicans to announce his opposition, not just to how Obama wanted to fund the extension of the tax reduction, but the tax cut extension itself.

This, incidentally, is the same Jon Kyl who said in an earlier debate: "If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does." When confronted with the fact that abortions account for only 3% of the organization's work, Kyl's spokesperson claimed that his floor statement "was not intended to be a factual statement."

When the Gingrich senators don't have the votes to get their way, they will use all aspects of the legislative process to bring the rest of the chamber to its knees. In the last Congress, the Senate took 419 votes on roll call amendments. The 19 Gingrich senators who were serving at the time introduced more than half of these amendments. Seven of the top 10 senators who introduced the most amendments that resulted in roll call votes were Gingrich senators.

Endlessly introducing amendments has become another form of filibustering, which previously involved making speeches rather than introducing amendments. But when a stream of amendments couldn't defeat the health care bill, the Republicans offered up a "stunt" amendment, its sole purpose to create a perception that Democrats were voting against preventing sex offenders from buying Viagra in the insurance markets established by the bill. Tom Coburn, a Gingrich senator, introduced the amendment.

Gingrich's strategy was successful in 1994 when the Republicans won a majority in the House and the Senate. The strategy was also successful in 2010 after John Boehner and Eric Cantor implemented it in the Pelosi-run House. The Gingrich senators are once again using it to try and take back the Senate in the 2012 elections.

The chambers and parties may resolve their differences over the payroll tax cut extension, but it is unlikely that they will do so through the methods that Gingrich made popular during his congressional days. Furthermore, if we can predict the future from their past record, the solution is not likely to come from the Gingrich senators.

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The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Sean Theriault.

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