Study Guide

Newt Gingrich in 1996 State of the Union Address

By William Clinton

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Newt Gingrich

Let's talk about parties in Congress real quick. Nope, not the kinds that feature house music. (Would that make dubstep "Senate" music? Sorry, we had to.)

Here's the bottom line: it really, really matters which party (Democrats or Republicans) has the most seats in Congress. Congress has the ability to pass laws, but the president gets to sign them into law (or veto them). So if there's a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress—as was the case at the start of Bill Clinton's presidency—a lot of laws get passed.

What about the other scenario? That's what we call "divided government." In 1994, Republicans won the majority of seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. That came with a few perks; the majority party gets to set the agenda, appoint heads of committees, and choose the Speaker of the House, the third highest-ranking elected official in the nation. With the power to draft and pass legislation, a Congress with strong party majorities can have serious leverage over the president.

Eyes of Newt

That's where our friend Newt comes in. Gingrich, a Republican who used to be a history professor, became the Speaker of the House in 1994. It became clear pretty quickly in his tenure that he was not eager to help out President Clinton.

Under Gingrich's leadership, American politics became more divisive. The Gingrich Congress twice shut down the federal government when they couldn't agree with Clinton on a federal budget compromise. With Bob Dole leading the Senate, they sent Clinton several budget and tax plans that he vetoed. Gone were the days when Clinton could pass things like major gun legislation.

Gingrich and his Congressional allies were successful in forcing Bill Clinton to move toward the ideological center, where he set himself up in the 1996 State of the Union.

Even though he has a reputation for being a bit nasty to his opponents, you can't fault Newt for lack of career success. The guy even published a novel (source). It's about a powerful government official who's bored with his marriage…and—psst: juicy gossip alert—we heard that it's about some real Washington power players.

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