By Sigurd Neubauer
Before being elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, Robert L. Livingston (R-LA) played a key role in reducing the nation’s deficit in what is known as the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. Upon retiring from Louisiana’s 1st District – which Livingston had turned Republican for the first time since Reconstruction in 1977 – he launched a thriving lobbying and government relations firm which carries his namesake.
Livingston also enjoys a unique place in American history: He was speaker-elect for about a week in later December 1998, but was never sworn in.
In a wide-raging interview, we discuss his two-decades long career in Congress, his friendship and later rivalry with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), America’s culture wars and ultimately what it takes to succeed in the nation’s capital, of which President Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Livingston also speaks fondly of president Ronald Reagan and the cultural shift his administration ushered in.
Admiration for Reagan
Livingston admires Reagan for his intelligence, charisma, and ability to hire the best and the brightest as opposed to friends and “country club style” people, a reference he specifically made to President George H. Bush. “Bush Sr. was a wonderful man and an American hero, but he never fully understood Reagan,” he says.
What makes a good congressman, Livingston explains, is hard work. “It is an exhausting job.”
“Anyone who only defers to staff cannot get into leadership positions and are thus unable to pass an agenda. Getting along with people is important, too,” he says.
“These days – unlike in the good old days – members of Congress have to raise money.” But any effective member must educate himself on the issues, but the most important aspect of the job is constituency services, Livingston adds.
“If you do all that, and you become known as a hard worker, whose word is your bond, then you can become a successful Representative.”
Among the former members who become lobbyists – and think that one can just hire staff and lean back, the chances are that they won’t become successful.
“One needs to know that being a lobbyist is similar to constituency services. Instead of responding to those who elected you, the lobbyist report to his clients,” Livingston explains.
Finding success in the craft is about sustained efforts, hard work and delivering.
“We have been hired, we have been fired, and we’ve produced. We always tell clients that we cannot promise every delivery. A guaranteed outcome is never a sure thing,” he says but clarifies that if one applies himself through hard work and best efforts, success will come.
“If you do all that, it ends up working well,” Livingston says as he looks back at a storied two-decade long lobbying career.
Why and how Livingston decides to pursue a lobbying career, the former representative says that he was about to retire from Congress in 1998 but his constituents wanted him to stay on as he was the chairman of the powerful Appropriation Committee.
“Any effective member must educate himself on the issues, but the most important aspect of the job is constituency services” - Bob Livingston
“At their behest, I stayed on,” Livingston says but adds that he had no intention of running for speaker at that time.
After his resignation from Congress, which we discuss later in the piece, Livingston began to consider alternatives, but it became clear to him that he didn’t want to practice law. Instead, he discussed opening a lobbying practice with his staff who he invited to join him.
“I have been working with some of them since 1976 – that’s 46 years – when we joined Jones Walker LLP, which at the time was a New Orleans-based law firm. The firm, which has since expanded nationwide, offered the newly established Livingston Group to underwrite its expenses through incorporating it into its Washington office which is spearheaded by Chris Johnson. While the two companies enjoy a strategic partnership, they are separate entities, although they do share some clients, Livingston explains.
Livingston had initially registered as a Democrat in 1964 while at the Tulane University Law School, but it was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies, including his “Great Society” initiative and the Vietnam War which ultimately convinced him of shifting parties.
He counts his first boss out of law school, David Conner Treen, whom he helped get elected to represent Louisiana’s 3rd District in Congress, as an early mentor. Treen later became the first Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction.
“As I grew up, there were only 500 Republicans in Louisiana and my mother was one of them. Even when I first ran for Congress in the 1st District encompassing both urban New Orleans and rural parts of the state, there were very few Republicans,” the former lawmaker says.
In the 1970s, Treen and Livingston, among others, embodied the cultural shift that swept the South from reliably Democrat to Republican. “There was no shift in ideology, but the Democrat Party changed, which is how we were able to persuade people to become Republican,” he recalls
In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Republicans often unsuccessfully attempted to woo Louisianians to their side as the Democratic incumbents responded to conservative challengers by touting their own social conservative bone fide. “This trick often worked and they got re-elected.”
From 1933 into the early 1970s, most white conservatives in the South voted Democrat, which created a solid block for the party in Congress.
What changed in the South, including in Louisiana, Livingston explains, was that the Democratic Party “left those voters”.
His examples, whether “damages brought by the Great Society” – or its succeeding social welfare and government programs spending, softness on crime and lax interest in national security are issues that Americans some fifty years later remain divided over.
These are, of course, the social and cultural issues that divide the Republican and Democratic parties.
Fast forward, Livingston predicts that the Republicans will retake Congress this upcoming November by focusing on restoring law and order, strengthening border security and restraining government spending and resultant inflation.
The next Congress will focus on illegal immigration, border security, fighting inflation and a strong national defense, Livingston explains but adds that gender identity issues will likely be ignored.
“Congressional Republics will focus on supporting the police, empower district attorneys and strengthening bail laws,” he says. “It won’t be quite like “The Contract with America” of the 1990s, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy “will launch something similar within the next couple of months,” he predicts.
When Livingston was first elected, “Congress wasn’t that ideological,” he says. “Thomas P. O’Neill was Speaker, and Livingston fondly describes how he had friends on both sides of the aisle. “Today, this is impossible,” he laments while describing Congress “as an appalling and bitter place where people barely know each other.
One of his friends, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said in 1998: “Bob Livingston is essentially an institutional member. He cares about the institution. He realizes that to get a product in a clearly divided body, it is necessary to pass bills that have an appeal to both sides. He’s a conservative, but not a zealot.”
Hoyer is currently the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
During Tip O’Neill’s speakership, committee chairs were empowered and the minority had a voice, he recalls. “Nowadays, the speaker – a subtle reference to Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – doesn’t tolerate legislation that she doesn’t endorse. The chairmanship has been diminished,” he says.
“Today, everything is partisan, and if you try to cut a deal, chances are high that you will get primaried,” Livingston explains.
Once the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, the first time since 1933, Livingston was elected Chairman of the powerful Appropriation Committee. He also served on the Intelligence Committee where he developed an expertise in defense and foreign policy.
Newt Gingrich, who Livingston describes as a friend, and Representative Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, became part of the House leadership. Gingrich, for his part, wanted to control the Committee structures but when Republicans did not pick up 15 seats as expected in the 1998 elections but rather lost 5 seats instead, Livingston says, he became convinced that he couldn’t get re-elected.
Robert L. Livingston was speaker-elect for about a week in December 1999 but was never sworn in.
It was at this point that Livingston ran for speaker and won a majority of Republican votes. Since the Republicans still controlled the House, he became the Speaker-elect. Fate, however, would have it otherwise as the newly elected speaker became engulfed in scandal after it emerged that Livingston had had an affair. Livingston is the only person in the history of the Congress to be elected speaker but not having actually served.
Describing how he won the election for speaker; Livingston reveals how he “outworked everyone”. Prior to the midterm elections of 1998, House Republicans anticipated that they would pick up an additional 15 seats but lost five instead.
“There had been an attempted coup against Gingrich a year earlier,” Livingston reveals but clarifies that he had worked to defeat it. A year later, the same group of lawmakers who had opposed Gingrich remained discontent with him. The midterm elections results made clear that Gingrich was losing ground within the Republican conference, which is when several lawmakers began jockeying to replace him.
“If anyone could do it, I could,” Livingston recalls. “After all I had learned to be a good chairman of the Appropriation Committee.”
He then began exploring the idea. Next Livingston got on the phone and began tracking down his colleagues to secure their votes. “I rallied up all the votes I needed before anyone else could do it.”
There were eight other people who wanted the post, but by the time that they announced it in the press, Livingston had already the votes locked down and there was nothing anyone could do about it, he recalls.
Both Gingrich and Livingston played key roles in the impeachment procedures against President William J. Clinton in 1995, of which his own infidelity became a focal point. Recalling the momentous event, Livingston argues that Clinton was impeached because he lied under oath to Congress, not because of his infidelity.
In consultation with his wife, Livingston decided to resign from Congress in 1999 to preserve the integrity of his family. It was at that point that Livingston launched his lobbying career.
We had a very small 5 vote margin and there were a lot of moralizers in the Congress at the time,” Livingston recalls. “I felt the Republican Conference would have been better off without me at the helm.”
The irony, however, was that the Republican speaker to succeed him, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, was decades later convicted of abusing boys.
[About Robert L. Livingston]
Robert L. Livingston is considered one of the most effective leaders of the Appropriations Committee of our times. As Chairman, he shepherded 13 bills through the legislative process each year. He is the only Appropriations Chairperson to achieve a balanced budget in recent memory. Livingston’s ability to obtain such a feat is due to his very good relations with his Democratic counterparts, and willingness to retain longtime professional committee staffers with institutional knowledge, rather than appoint staffers solely based on ideology.
In addition, Livingston made significant contributions to long term national security through his appropriations work including earmarks in the Appropriations process for developing programs like Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAV) that eventually lead to the creation of the Predator drone.