From CQ Roll Call file photo.
Recently former Speaker of the House John Boehner has received some press for his new book, On The House: A Washington Memoir, where he has a lot of criticisms and in particular for those elected in the Tea Party wave and after who worked to undermine his position. Interestingly enough, Boehner himself was once part of a group of legislators who worked to change Washington. The 1990 election wasn’t great for the Republicans as midterms are historically not favorable to the party in the White House. However, it wasn’t catastrophic either, and seven new Republican representatives were elected who would stand out for their reformist efforts: Frank Riggs and John Doolittle of California, Jim Nussle of Iowa, Charles Taylor of North Carolina, John Boehner of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Scott Klug of Wisconsin. These seven worked to “shake up” Washington so to speak and did so by criticizing and drawing attention to special perks legislators got and publicizing scandals, such as the Congressional Post Office and House Banking scandals that exposed poorly run operations and abuses of power from members of Congress.
The Congressional Post Office Scandal
The Post Office scandal began with an embezzlement charge against an employee of the Congressional Post Office and expanded after Democratic efforts to stop the investigation. The Congressional Post Office was so badly run that the AP reported, “The transcripts, from interviews conducted two years ago as part of an internal House probe of its own postal system, portrayed an operation where tens of thousands of dollars lay loose in drawers and even on the floor, where recordkeeping was sloppy or nonexistent, and where some of the highest-paid employees spent their days reading newspapers” (Drinkard). Congressional Postmaster Robert Rota pled guilty to three charges in July 1993 and implicated through testimony Ways and Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), former Representative Joe Kolter (D-Penn.), and Kolter’s chief of staff. The Post Office was only effective when members of Congress, especially Rostenkowski, wanted special favors. As mail clerk Inga Lawson stated, ″Whenever he’d [Rostenkowski] call or wanted something, in fact everybody had to jump to it, you know, regardless of what it was″ (Drinkard). He would be convicted of mail fraud and Kolter would be convicted of conspiring with Rota to embezzle $9300 in taxpayer funds in 1996.
The House Banking Scandal
As the media was starting to catch on to the House Banking Scandal, Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the “Gang of Seven” decided to expose it as they correctly figured that more Democrats would be damaged than Republicans. Gingrich himself was damaged as a result as he was found to have had 22 overdrafts and came close to losing renomination over the matter in 1992 (Bolduc). The event was most notably publicized by Jim Nussle of Iowa, who delivered a speech while wearing a paper bag over his head to illustrate the shame check-kiting members brought to the House. The House bank did not function like a bank, rather like a credit union, and it functioned poorly: “It paid no interest and charged none on overdrafts. If a member didn’t mind signing the bum check, the bank didn’t mind cashing it. Technically, the congressmen didn’t bounce checks.–the bank almost never bothered to return them for insufficient funds. In fact, it was so badly run that many congressmen plausibly claim that they had no idea they were in arrears. As a result, a number of innocents inevitably will be tarred with the same brush as those “kiters” who deliberately manipulated their accounts to get interest-free loans” (Newsweek). Ultimately, the Gang of Seven were able to force the closure of the House Bank and twenty-two representatives were singled out by the House Ethics Committee for egregious overdrafts, among them eighteen Democrats and four Republicans. The worst offender for overdrafts was former Representative Tommy Robinson (R-Ark.), who had bounced 996 checks, some over 16 months overdue. Of the twenty-two listed, seventeen were still in office and of those, only five were reelected. The truth is that the biggest scandal surrounded how poorly the bank itself was run, as the Bank didn’t post deposits timely, and representatives were not given regular account statements or informed of when they had overdrawn. The 1992 elections would result in a whopping 110 new members for the next Congress and minor Republican gains. Four former representatives, one delegate, and the former sergeant at arms for the House were convicted of criminal charges related to the scandal. These scandals, in addition to an overall weariness of Democratic rule for so long and an unpopular healthcare proposal tarnishing President Clinton’s image as a moderate produced a political earthquake in 1994.
1994 Republican Revolution
The 1994 elections were the shining moment for the Republican Party as well as the Gang of Seven: Nussle and Boehner played significant roles in the drafting of the Contract with America, a list of conservative policy proposals they promised to bring to the floor should they win a majority. Two months before the 1994 elections, Boehner delivered a speech blasting the Democratic Congress, saying, “The liberal Democrat establishment in Washington doesn’t understand the concept of a contract because they don’t understand the meaning or the power of a kept promise” (Marcos & Wong). On November 8, 1994, the Republicans won 54 seats from the Democrats in the House, gaining a majority in that chamber for the first time in forty years. They also managed to defeat some powerful incumbents, including Speaker of the House Tom Foley of Washington, Judiciary Committee chair Jack Brooks of Texas, Intelligence Committee chair Dan Glickman of Kansas, and Rostenkowski, who had been indicted before the 1994 elections. The most notable accomplishment that came out of this was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which overhauled the welfare system. However, President Clinton and the Senate managed to block many of their proposals.
What Became of the Gang of Seven?
Frank Riggs (MCI: 80%) lost reelection in 1992 but returned in 1994 and unsuccessfully ran for the nomination to run against Senator Barbara Boxer in 1998. He has since moved to Arizona and lost an election for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2018.
John Doolittle (MCI: 96%) was forced to retire in 2009 due to his ties to Jack Abramoff. No charges were brought against him after an investigation.
Jim Nussle (MCI: 86%) served in the House until 2007. He had chosen not to run for reelection and unsuccessfully ran for governor against Democrat Chet Culver. Nussle subsequently served as President Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. He left the Republican Party on January 6, 2021, citing the storming of the U.S. Capitol, and now is an Independent.
Charles Taylor (MCI: 94%) lost reelection in 2006, having been politically weakened over controversies regarding his business dealings.
John Boehner (MCI: 93%) succeeded Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader in 2006, served as Minority Leader from 2007 to 2011, and as House speaker from 2011 to 2015. As Speaker he blocked further progressive legislation and regularly had to negotiate with President Obama for budget deals and ironically faced his own group of whippersnappers among the Tea Party freshmen, most notably the Freedom Caucus. Boehner is now the head of a cannabis lobbying firm, The National Cannabis Roundtable.
Rick Santorum (MCI: 89%) was elected to the Senate in 1994 and was elected Senate Republican Conference chair but lost reelection in 2006 by over 18 points. He subsequently ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2012 on a socially conservative platform but lost to Mitt Romney. Santorum tried again in the 2016 primary but didn’t make headway. He remains active in Republican politics and is a commentator for CNN.
Scott Klug (MCI: 60%) had promised to serve only four terms in his election bid in 1990 and he honored that promise, opting not to run for reelection in 1998.
Bolduc, B. (2012, January 20). Ex-Pols: Gingrich Supported Gang of Seven. National Review.
Caught In The Act. (1992, March 22). Newsweek.
Drinkard, J. (1994, July 7). Post Office Workers Describe Operation As Sloppy Cesspool. Associated Press.
Feldmann, L. (1992, March 13). Congress Reels From Check-Kiting Scandal. The Christian Science Monitor.
Freddoso, D. (2012, March 28). House headgear: The Paper Bag Speech. Washington Examiner.
Marcos, C. & Wong, S. (2015, October 29). Boehner’s top 10 moments in Congress. The Hill.
McGrady, C. (2019, July 29). Here are the ‘squads’ of Congresses past. Roll Call.