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The House Under New Management: We Won't Get Fooled Again

The last time Republicans won the House, Rep.-elect Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) was in high school.

That was 1994 and Kinzinger was a student at Normal Community West High School in Illinois, writing book reports.

It's 16 years later. And Kinzinger is still studying. Only this time as a freshman member of the historic Republican class of 2010.

Kinzinger emerged from the office of presumptive-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) late Tuesday after a meeting of the Republicans' House Transition team. He tucked a thick volume of Thomas Jefferson's "Manual" on House procedure under his arm.

"I'll have it read tonight and give you a book report," Kinzinger said with a laugh as he chatted with reporters just off the House floor.

Kinzinger remembers the 1994 Republican tsunami. And now he's a part of the GOP's next wave.

"It was a shake-up to the system," Kinzinger says, recalling discussions about the Republican victory in social studies class. "I remember Republicans had never been in control. It's interesting to see it from the inside."

Kinzinger is just one of scores of freshmen Republicans arriving in Washington in a few days with designs to shake up the system and reform the way the House is run.

This sounds familiar. Didn't they try this back in 1994. And to a lesser degree, when Democrats seized control of the House in 2006.

Boehner tapped Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) to lead the Republican transition. And the broken promises and calcified covenants of 1994 and 2006 didn't stop Walden from touting the goals of the new, GOP House.

"We're going to look at how to make the House more open, transparent and accessible to the American people," Walden boasted Tuesday. "It's important to restore confidence in the institution."

Somewhere beneath the Capitol, the Congressional DJ is queuing up The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Pete Townshend's searing power chords will reverberate off the marble floors and Roger Daltrey's vocals will cynically decry how awry the "new revolution" veered off course.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

"We won't get fooled again," the voters claim.

See, "Swamp, Drain the."

Or, look to 1994, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his band of freshmen stormed the Capitol gates. Only their mandate and message deteriorated rapidly. Gingrich was nearly overthrown in the summer of 1998 and shown the door later that year. A number of high-profile Republicans, including former-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) suffered ethics scandals. Republican "pork" and spending exploded.

The Republican dream devolved into a nightmare. Perhaps it's no surprise that voters returned the keys to the castle to the Democrats in 2006.

Gingrich hired Scot Faulkner in 1995 to be the House's first Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). His mandate was to run the House like a business. And some years later, Faulkner chronicled the GOP downfall in his book "Naked Emperors: The Failure of the Republican Revolution."

Gingrich arrived on the scene with his vaunted, ten-point "Contract with America" that he vowed to plow through in 100 days. John Boehner takes the gavel with his more opaque "Pledge to America." It promises tax cuts, spending reductions and a repeal of the health care law, among other things.

Faulkner's seen this movie before. And up close, too.

"(Boehner) needs to think beyond the first 100 days," he said. "They need to think of 2012. This is an era of shorter attention spans. A beginning chess player thinks one play ahead. A master player thinks 20 moves ahead."

Boehner's certainly not a beginning player. In fact, he's the only member of the current Republican leadership who was one of Gingrich's lieutenants in 1994, serving as House GOP Conference Chair. Boehner witnessed the mistakes of the Gingrich regime up close. And many believe that unique vantage point gives Boehner the chance to avoid the pitfalls that eventually doomed the last Republican-led House.

Many argue that Boehner's not a "visionary" like Gingrich was. But Faulkner believes that could work to Boehner's advantage.

"Gingrich would wake up every morning with a bunch of ideas and say ‘Stop this, let's do something different.' It was exhausting because we would wind up not doing anything," said Faulkner.

One Republican Congressional source who witnessed the 1994 transition up close said that the contrast between Gingrich and Boehner is important.

"He's more circumspect," said the source of Boehner compared to Gingrich. "He knows what the problems were last time."

Faulkner notes that unlike Gingrich, Boehner has experience as an actual legislative "engineer." At any one time, there are only about 40 lawmakers from either party in both the House and Senate combined who can actually draft and pass a significant piece of legislation. Boehner's long been one of them. His legislative vitae includes the passage of major, sometimes intractable bills like No Child Left Behind and a big pension reform bill five years ago. Many of those legislative accomplishments stem from Boehner's stewardship of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Gingrich nor former-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) ever chaired a full House committee like Boehner did.

But just because Boehner's style is different than that of Gingrich doesn't mean that Capitol Hill isn't littered with Congressional landmines. The GOP Congressional source believes that Boehner could have a management problem with the upstart, freshmen class.

"Coming in during an anti-establishment year, they want to show their bona fides of not being under the thumb of the leaders," the source said. "If he's going to prove himself to his new members, he has to put points on the board."

Faulkner agrees about the potential peril posed by the freshmen.

"The tea party wants to kick over the table and they don't care who gets hurt," Faulkner said. So he encourages Republicans to truly embrace reforms with teeth. And that starts with addressing spiraling spending. Faulkner says that Gingrich was known for being a "forward-thinker" who associated himself with futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. But Faulkner asserts Gingrich never harnessed Congressional spending.

"(Gingrich) sat down with the Tofflers but he didn't sit down with the appropriators," Faulkner said, referring to the legendary squad of lawmakers who dole out federal dollars to government departments.

Faulkner believes a signal of potential Republican success will center around concrete decisions to slash spending and produce results that people can see.

On Tuesday, reporters asked Greg Walden what he learned from those involved in the 1994 transition.

"Sweat the small stuff. The small stuff matters. It matters to how this institution operates. How the public perceives the institution. Get into the weeds," he responded.

The GOP leadership team of Boehner, incoming-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and presumptive Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have lots of small stuff to sweat. Which is why symbolism is critical, too.

Shortly after the election, I pointed out to Walden that ice buckets became an icon during the 1995 GOP revolution. Every morning, a bucket of ice was distributed to each Congressional office. And no one could quite explain why. But Republicans quickly found that this service cost the House millions of dollars a year.

It was an old tradition, dating back to before the invention of contemporary refrigeration. But no one ever bothered to question it.

And so each morning, 435 pools of water would form outside each House office as the ice in the buckets would melt. Gingrich and the GOP torpedoed the ice deliveries. But Walden remembers the ice deliveries from his time on Capitol Hill before he became a member.

"I was on staff up here when they delivered the ice," said Walden, adding that it "was crazy."

In the end, killing the ice deliveries was a "drop in the bucket." But the daily pools of melted ice coating the hallways were emblematic of what Republicans perceived was wrong on Capitol Hill. The GOP halted the deliveries, saved some money and showed the public how times were changing.

Perhaps it's only appropriate the Republicans addressed the ice issue. Change doesn't come easily in Congress. In fact, many practices may as well be frozen not in ice, but in a glacier. And they aren't going to thaw any time soon.

Which is why despite the best intentions, the Republicans could veer of course. Fast.

"There is a tremendous unease that (the voters) believe they were gamed by both parties," said Scot Faulkner.

And the tension in the electorate is so palpable this time, that it's doubtful the public will get fooled again.