Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" is legendary in the annals of American politics.
The late-Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-MO) is not.
That's interesting. Because it was the GOP's seizure of Congress in 1994 and Gingrich's rise to the speakership that transmogrified an obscure, back-bench Congressman into the Democrats lead attack dog in confronting the Contract with America on the House floor in 1995.
In basketball, Magic had Bird. In tennis, there was McEnroe and Borg. Batman had the Joker. Each were foils for one another.
Historians assert that President Clinton was Newt Gingrich's foil. But when it came to legislative combat on the House floor in 1995, Gingrich's foil was Harold Volkmer.
Harold Volkmer just died a few days ago of pneumonia at age 80 in Hannibal, MO, Mark Twain's hometown along the Mississippi River. In the fall of 1976, Jimmy Carter won Missouri and its 12 electoral votes. That election also featured the election of four new Democratic Congressmen from Missouri: Dick Gephardt (D-MO), Ike Skelton (D-MO), Robert Young (D-MO) and Harold Volkmer.
Gephardt eventually rose to be House Majority Leader and ran for president twice. Skelton became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. As for Volkmer? He devoted himself to less captivating causes. A National Rifle Association Board member, Volkmer toiled away on gun legislation. He mastered the intricacies of poultry and dairy policy. His constituent service outreach was known on Capitol Hill as exemplary.
But Volkmer rarely garnered a headline or entered the spotlight that shone on his classmate and Show Me State colleague Gephardt.
Until January 18, 1995.
It began as an uneventful day in the House. The press had been buzzing about a controversial and lucrative book deal cut by Gingrich. And then-Rep. Carrie Meek (D-FL) came to the floor to denounce the speaker's multimillion dollar contract.
"He stands to gain that much and a whole lot more," Meek said during a short speech on the House floor. "That's a whole lot of dust from where I come from."
Republicans immediately moved to have Meek's "words taken down." Having ones "words taken down" is the first step in disciplining a member for disrupting decorum in the House and impugning the motives of a fellow lawmaker. When words are taken down, action in the House grinds to a halt until the language in question is read aloud to the chamber. The parliamentarian and the presiding officer then rule whether the words are in order. If so, debate resumes. If not, the offending lawmaker's speech is stricken from the record and he or she is banned from speaking on the floor for the rest of the day.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) presided over the House that day and indicated that "innuendo and personal references to the Speaker's conduct" were not in order.
Democrats raised hackles. But Harold Volkmer was nearly apoplectic. In fact, Volkmer didn't intend to get involved in a scrape over the Gingrich's book contract. He had just wandered over to the floor to make a speech about unfunded mandates.
"Is the speaker saying that any comment about the Speaker's activity, whether it's illegal or not, the Speaker of the House in his private actions cannot be brought to the floor of this House? Is that your ruling?" thundered Volkmer at Stearns.
A rambunctious scene followed on the floor, with lawmakers of each party yelling and screaming at each other. Finally, Volkmer took the lectern and began to read out loud the same words that Meek uttered.
"Those words have been stricken from the record!" protested former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA).
Finally, Volkmer exploded.
"I object to the gentleman from California lyin' to this House!" scolded Volkmer.
The cacophony on the House floor reached a fevered pitch as the Republicans were now after Volkmer, demanding in turn that his words be taken down.
A few days later, former Rep. Bob Dornan (R-CA) took to the House floor to denounce President Clinton, claiming that the president "gave aid and comfort to the enemy" for what the Congressman believed was draft dodging during the Vietnam War.
The House floor again devolved into bedlam as Volkmer demanded three times that Dornan's remarks be taken down.
"He has to be quiet!" Volkmer excoriated the chair as Dornan continued to speak despite having being gaveled down.
A parliamentary guardian was born in Volkmer who then waged daily hand-to-hand combat against the GOP as its membership tried to muscle through Gingrich's Contract With America.
Prior to 1995, Democrats controlled the House for decades. So when Republicans won the House in 1994, Democrats were stung and didn't know which way was up. They didn't have a floor watchdog in waiting. And Volkmer was just in the right place at the right time despite being a back-bencher for his previous 18 years in Congress.
"It was like flipping a switch," said former Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) of Volkmer's overnight evolution. Volkmer defeated Hulshof in 1994. But Hulshof showed Volkmer in a 1996 re-match.
"His objective was to call late-night votes, be a thorn in the side and just tie up the new majority in knots," said Hulshof who noted that Volkmer's first wife died in 1995. "He had this time on his hands and he took it out on Newt. He put the new majority to the test."
A couple of weeks later, the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call published a story titled "Rep. Harold Volkmer: Unplugged." The lead sentence in the story asked "Just who is Rep. Harold Volkmer?"
Former Rep. Tom Coleman (R-MO) was a Congressional classmate of Volkmer's in 1976 and served with him in the state legislature. Coleman says Volkmer was known in Jefferson City for his mastery of parliamentary procedure and legislative no-how. But when he arrived in Washington, Volkmer assumed a quieter role for his first nine terms.
"All of a sudden, he was jumping up and objecting," said Coleman of Volkmer."I was surprised he never showed that bull-doggedness. It just came out during his last term."
Coleman says it was simply electoral events that ushered Volkmer to prominence.
"Had the Democrats held the majority, (Volkmer's feistiness) never would have manifested itself," Coleman said.
Years later in an interview about the role of parliamentary watchdogs, Volkmer told me he would watch the floor and scout out which members of the other party had volatile tempers. He likened it to playing basketball and trying to goad a hothead on the other team into a technical foul.
As his Democratic colleagues reeled from their loss at the polls, Volkmer waged war with the Republicans for most of 1995. During speeches, he repeatedly called the Contract with America the "Contract on America."
During one floor debate, he asked Republicans three times if they would yield him time. They refused.
"Didn't think you would," Volkmer snarled.
Even Volkmer's one-time floor nemesis Bob Dornan declared that the efforts of the GOP to stifle his colleague backfired.
"We outsmarted ourselves. And now we've created - not a monster - but a conscience on the other side of the aisle named Volkmer," said Dornan to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Kenny Hulshof came to Washington after unseating Volkmer in 1996 and was elected president of his freshman class. Hulshof says GOP members cheered him wildly when he was introduced to the House Republican Conference. But Hulshof doesn't think the applause was exclusively for him.
"I think it was a sense of relief that (Volkmer) had been defeated because he had been such a burr in the saddle, testing the new majority," Hulshof said.
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain writes that Tom and his pal Joe Harper "would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever."
That's akin to the legacy of Harold Volkmer. For 18 years, the Hannibal, MO resident represented his district with little fanfare amid a big Congressional majority. And when Republicans won the House in 1994, Volkmer was dispatched to the Congressional equivalent of Sherwood Forest. And like Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper, Volkmer may have found it far more intriguing being a Congressional outlaw for one term.