Republicans Regain Control of Congress

A growing conservative constituency elected a Republican majority to both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1994, as the midterm congressional elections approached, the U.S. electorate was in volatile mood. People were disillusioned and skeptical about political institutions and political leaders. It seemed to many Americans that government was out of touch and no longer responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Voter anger against the federal establishment made 1994 a difficult year to be an incumbent. Congressional elections, U.S.
Republican Party (U.S.)
U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence
[kw]Republicans Regain Control of Congress (Nov. 8, 1994)
[kw]Congress, Republicans Regain Control of (Nov. 8, 1994)
Congressional elections, U.S.
Republican Party (U.S.)
U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence
[g]North America;Nov. 8, 1994: Republicans Regain Control of Congress[08990]
[g]United States;Nov. 8, 1994: Republicans Regain Control of Congress[08990]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 8, 1994: Republicans Regain Control of Congress[08990]
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;Republican resurgence
Gingrich, Newt

Republicans were optimistic that they would benefit from voter dissatisfaction, pointing to the sharp drop in popularity of President Bill Clinton in public opinion polls. To win control of the House of Representatives, the Republicans needed to win forty new seats. To take the Senate, they needed seven new seats. As the divisive and bitter campaign season drew to a close, the conventional wisdom was that the Republicans would make gains, but they probably would fall short of winning majorities in either house.

Few people expected the political earthquake that followed. Democrats tumbled to defeat all across the country, and the Republicans seized control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time since 1954. In the House, Republicans won 230 seats to the Democrats’ 204. In the Senate, Republicans secured an advantage of 53 to 47, reversing a preelection situation of 56 to 44 in favor of the Democrats. Some of the most powerful Democratic incumbents were defeated. These included Speaker of the House Thomas Foley Foley, Thomas and Representative Dan Rostenkowski Rostenkowski, Dan of Illinois, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee (whose reelection campaign was especially difficult because he had been indicted for misappropriation of funds). Other, younger figures such as Representatives Jim Slattery Slattery, Jim of Kansas and Jim Cooper Cooper, Jim of Tennessee, both of whom had been considered future Democratic leaders, also were defeated.

This voting pattern was repeated at the state level, where the Republicans gained twelve governorships, making a total of thirty, including seven of the eight largest states. The Republicans also made big gains in state legislatures across the country. It was the biggest success for the Republican Party since 1946, and it left the Democrats confused and leaderless.

As the Republicans rejoiced, some Democrats were quick to blame President Clinton for the debacle. They pointed out that he had failed to keep his promise of a middle-class tax cut and that he had failed to make the fundamental changes in the way government works that he had promised in his 1992 campaign. Although Clinton had claimed to be a centrist “new Democrat,” his policies closely resembled traditional liberalism—which the public had come to associate with high taxes and excessive government spending, the kind of “big government” that was now being identified as the nation’s problem rather than the solution to the nation’s ills.

The architect of the Republican victory was Georgia representative Newt Gingrich, formerly the House minority whip; after the election, he was set to become the Speaker of the House. An aggressive, fiercely partisan figure, Gingrich was instrumental in drawing up the Republican platform, the main plank of which was the Contract with America, Contract with America a ten-point plan that the Republicans promised to bring before Congress in their first hundred days if they were in charge of the new Congress.

Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich became a leading spokesperson for conservativism after he became speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Contract with America called for the enactment of a constitutional amendment that would mandate a balanced federal budget by 2002. The idea was to promote fiscal responsibility by reining in a Congress that was perceived as out of control on spending. The contract also promised a tougher anticrime bill than the one President Clinton had signed the previous September; sharp cuts in welfare programs, including the power to cut off benefits to unmarried mothers who were less than twenty-one years of age; term limits on members of Congress, which would replace career politicians with “citizen legislators”; legal reforms; a tax cut for the middle class and a 50 percent cut in the capital gains tax; an increase in defense spending; and a reorganization of the way the House does business, involving a cut in the number of congressional committees and a reduction of congressional staff by one-third.

This agenda was so radical that after the Republican victory, commentators predicted that the country was about to undergo the biggest reversal of direction in government policy since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Roosevelt, Franklin D. New Deal New Deal programs, which had begun in 1933. Since the New Deal, there had been a consensus that central government should intervene to remedy the social and economic ills of the country. This had culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Johnson, Lyndon B. Great Society Great Society social programs of the 1960’s. The conservative Republicans who triumphed in 1994 believed this long period of liberal government activism had led to the social problems of the 1990’s, such as welfare dependence and an erosion of moral values. They made no secret of their desire to dismantle the welfare state and return many of the accumulated powers of the federal government to the states.


The 1994 elections left President Clinton weakened and returned the nation to another period of divided government, in which the executive branch and the legislature are controlled by different parties. Divided government had been the norm for more than twenty years until Clinton’s election in 1992, which coincided with firm Democratic control of Congress. In the days after the 1994 elections, Clinton struggled for a response to the debacle. At first, the White House claimed that voters were merely lashing out at incumbents in a display of antigovernment anger. However, it was clear that the statistics did not support such an interpretation, given that primarily Democratic incumbents were voted out.

A more considered response came in a postelection speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, in which Clinton defended his record. He pointed out he was the first president since Harry Truman to cut the federal budget deficit, which had quadrupled during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald and George H. W. Bush. Bush, George H. W. Clinton also took credit for promoting free trade, which traditionally has been supported by Republicans, and for his anticrime bill, which provided funds for increasing the size of cities’ police forces. Clinton pointed out that he had already reduced the size of the federal government by more than a quarter of a million employees. In other speeches, the president said that although he was willing to cooperate with the Republican Congress, he would not compromise on matters of principle. One such matter was the ban on certain kinds of assault weapons, which was enacted as part of the anticrime bill but which many Republicans wanted to repeal.

When the 104th Congress convened in January, 1995, the Republicans delivered on their promise of a dynamic hundred days. They succeeded in bringing all the major points in their Contract with America to a vote in the House of Representatives, and all but one measure passed there. Many Democrats voted with the Republicans. The one failure was the proposal for a constitutional amendment to mandate a federal balanced budget, which failed to secure the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. Although many of these proposals faced a much tougher fight in the Senate, it was clear that the Republicans had profoundly shifted the focus of political debate for a long time to come.

Bowing to the immediate reality, Clinton, who had campaigned in part on a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” cooperated in 1996 with Republican majorities to produce the nation’s first major welfare reform law since the inauguration of President Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960’s. The reform has been largely credited with reducing poverty and encouraging work among the poor. Moreover, the long-anticipated balanced budget became an actual fact within a few years, as government revenues surged with a healthy economy, generating large reductions in federal debt. For this development, both Clinton and the fiscally conservative Republicans claimed some credit. The Republican majority later successfully impeached Clinton, bringing charges of perjury against him in the Monica Lewinsky Lewinsky, Monica scandal, but Clinton weathered that storm.

The staying power of the Republican revolution was evidenced by the party’s ability to control both houses of Congress in subsequent congressional elections through 2004, even as George W. Bush captured the White House in 2000, ending the era of divided government and ushering in a period of Republican dominance. Congressional elections, U.S.
Republican Party (U.S.)
U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence

Further Reading

  • Beschloss, Michael R. “What Took Them So Long?” Newsweek, November 21, 1994, 49. Analyzes the resurgence of conservatism in the United States after the 1970’s and discusses why that trend took so long to produce Republican majorities in Congress.
  • Drew, Elizabeth. Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House. New York: Touchstone, 1996. A journalist’s detailed account of the first session of the 104th Congress focuses in large part on Newt Gingrich’s difficulties in controlling the new Republican majority and his clashes with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Includes index.
  • Fineman, Howard. “The Warrior.” Newsweek, January 9, 1995, 28-34. Discusses House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s life and career. Points out the consistency of Gingrich’s conservative message from the time of his first run for Congress in 1974, but also describes some contradictions in his personality and philosophy.
  • Galen, Michele. “How the Election Looks from the Corner Office.” BusinessWeek, November 21, 1994, 36. Presents interviews with business leaders concerning the Republican victory. Responses were generally positive, but some expressed fears that the bitter election would lead to divisiveness and gridlock.
  • Jones, Charles O. Clinton and Congress, 1993-1996: Risk, Restoration, and Reelection. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Scholarly work examines the changing relations between President Clinton and Congress during Clinton’s first term in office. Devotes substantial discussion to the Republicans’ return to the majority. Includes tables, figures, and index.
  • Kaus, Mickey. “They Blew It.” The New Republic, December 5, 1994, 14-19. Argues that if President Clinton had made welfare reform rather than health care reform his priority, the Democrats would not have suffered such a crushing defeat.
  • Kelly, Michael. “You Say You Want a Revolution.” The New Yorker, November 21, 1994, 56-63. Presents detailed analysis of voting patterns, the response of the Clinton administration to the Republican victory, and the difficulty Clinton was expected to have in regaining the political initiative.

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