Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy@motherjones.com.

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Your Daily Newt: The Great Dino Debates

Newt Gingrich and paleontologist Jack Horner debate dinosaurs in 1998.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Gingrich fantasized about bringing dinosaurs back to life in his 1995 book, and he decorated his Capitol office with a tyrannosaurus rex skull on loan from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. So it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that, in 1997 and again in 1998, Gingrich participated in a series of public debates with Montana State University paleontologist Jack Horner to discuss whether the T-Rex was a scavenger or a predator.

The first forum (which was not in the style of the Lincoln–Douglas debates) came shortly after Gingrich, joined at one point by Easy Rider star Peter Fonda, spent a day digging for dinosaur bones—and small mammals—at a secure private site south of Livingston, Montana. Jerry Gray of the New York Times set the scene:

Looking like a pudgy Indiana Jones in jeans, plaid shirt and wide-brimmed hat, lugging a backpack bulging with pickax, chisels and a wisk broom, the Speaker of the House chipped away a crust of brittle stones and dried mud to expose his Jurassic treasure. He grinned broadly and proclaimed, ''I feel like a 9-year-old.''

Following the excavation, Gingrich joined Horner for a one-hour debate at Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies, to discuss the feeding habits of the T-Rex. Gingrich's theory was simple: "I believe he was a predator because I saw 'Jurassic Park' and he ate a lawyer and it wasn't a dead lawyer."

The event, which doubled as a fundraiser for the museum, was enough of a success that they did it again the next year. Yes, there's a video.

Newt Gingrich Threatens to Purge Federal Courts

Newt Gingrich has a reputation, earned or not, as a man of ideas. And at Thursday's GOP presidential debate in Iowa, he suggested a big one: Borrow a page from Thomas Jefferson and abolish federal courts whose judges have handed down decisions he disagrees with. (He's previously called for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be purged.) If nothing else, he'd call liberal judges before Congress to testify.

As Gingrich put it, "The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful, and I think frankly arrogant in their misreading of the American people," the former House speaker said. "I would, just like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR, I would be prepared to take on the Judiciary if it did not restrict itself in what it was doing."

Video, via Think Progress:

Although Jefferson's clashes with the courts aren't as well known, Jackson and FDR's power-grabs have been largely condemned by historians. Gingrich, however, dismissed concerns that dismissing entire courts would unconstitutionally tip the scales on the balance of power: "I would suggest to you, actually, as a historian I may understand this better than lawyers." (Never mind that Gingrich, who specializes in counterfactual historical novels, is not a historian.)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Desperate to strike a nerve with anti-Washington Iowa voters at Thursday night's debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry floated an idea he talks about every now and then on the campaign trail: Make Congress part-time. Perry proposed slashing for pay for elected officials and their staffs, and cutting the amount of time they spend in Washington in half. As a model, he proposed that of the Texas legislature, which meets for just 140 days total, every two years.

It's a novel idea. It's also a recipe for disaster. For one thing, as TPM's Benjy Sarlin reported in November, Texas' part-time legislature hasn't done much to make government run smoother. It just puts more power in the hands of Rick Perry:

"It’s just really hard for the legislature get things done withen your government is run by a hundred boards and commissions appointed by a governor who has next to no voice in the legislature,” Bob Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University, told TPM.
"They give the governor a lot of power. Even with Republicans with large majorities, the chairman of finance couldn’t move anything without the governor’s blessing."

Given the GOP's crusade against President Obama's "czars," advocating that the executive branch have more discretion to fill key slots is an odd position for Perry to take (in Texas, he's also come under fire for stacking those aforementioned boards with top donors). It also offers a solution to a problem that doesn't exist—namely that members of Congress (and their staffs) are overpaid and lazy. Generally speaking, they work insanely long hours doing very difficult work, handling a set of responsibilities that have significantly expanded even as the size of Congress has hardly budged. In other words, the problem isn't the pay; it's the personnel.

Newt's Balanced Budget Claim Doesn't Add Up

Newt Gingrich.

Questioned by Fox News' Bret Baier on his conservative credentials at Thursday's GOP debate in Iowa, Newt Gingrich made a curious claim: As Speaker of the House, he said, he'd balanced the federal budget four times. It's a claim he's made before—in a video on his campaign website, and on the stump. But as Politifact notes, it's false: Although Congress did pass balanced budgets for four straight years beginning in the late 1990s, the latter two came after Gingrich had resigned from the House and he'd played no part in crafting them.

Per Politifact:

The federal budget runs on a fiscal year calendar that begins October 1 and ends September 30. During fiscal years 1996 and 1997—the first two that Gingrich helped shape as speaker—there were deficits, of $107 billion in 1996 and about $22 billion in 1997.

By fiscal year 1998, the federal budget did reach a surplus of $69 billion. And in fiscal year 1999—which Gingrich can claim some responsibility for, even though he was out as speaker for most of the fiscal year—it was in surplus as well, to the tune of $126 billion.

But that’s only two balanced budgets he can claim credit for. The federal government did run four consecutive surpluses, but for the last two of those—fiscal years 2000 and 2001—Gingrich was no longer serving in the House.

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