Dick Armey – Bio
Current FreedomWorks Chairman.
Dick Armey biography United States 107th Congress Web Archive Collection
Dick Armey was born July 7, 1940 in Cando, ND, the fifth of eight children to Glenn and Marian Armey. Armey graduated from Cando High School in 1958 and went to work climbing power poles for the REA.
One cold winter night while atop a 30-foot pole, Armey had something of an epiphany regarding the value of a college education. At 3 a.m., with the temperature 30 below zero, Armey thought to himself, “I’m not sure I want to be doing this when I’m 40,” and decided to go to college.
The following January, he enrolled at Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota, the first in his family to go to college. He was about to finish his studies and enter the world of work when an influential professor, Dr. Robert Biggs, suggested to him that “you ought to go to graduate school. You’ll be a great economist if you’ll just go study.”
That he did, enrolling in the Masters program at the University of North Dakota in 1963. From there it was on to the University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in economics. Armey then began his teaching career, starting at the University of Montana, then moving on to West Texas State, and Austin College.
In 1972, he began what would be a 13-year stint at the University of North Texas. In 1977 Armey became chairman of North Texas’ Economics Department, a promotion that he said took him away from the teaching he loved and into the “more political” part of the university. He wondered, for the first time, if his future lay in academics or elsewhere.
Legend has it that Dick Armey decided to pursue a career in public service while watching C-SPAN one night. For Armey, Washington had always seemed as a far off place where people were bigger than life. C-SPAN demystified Congress, convincing Armey that he could work effectively as an equal with the House members he came to know through television.
Armey was a strong believer in the policies of Ronald Reagan and he knew the President needed reinforcements in Congress. He was first elected to Congress in 1984 and went to Washington in 1985 as a novice, as he has said many times: “When I came to Washington, the only Congressman I’d known or spent much time with was the man I beat.”
Although Armey quickly made a name for himself in Washington as a member dedicated to good public policy based on conservative principles, the first notice Armey drew was for his sleeping habits not his legislating skills. As a freshman, he slept first in the House gym and then, after being ejected by then-Speaker O’Neill, on his office couch.
“I wasn’t doing it to make a political statement, but because I had four boys in college. What parent wouldn’t do the same? I always dreamed about sending my kids to college; I never dreamed about having an apartment in Washington, D.C.”
After winning re-election in 1986, Armey had his first important legislative success: passage of an amendment with Congressman Jack Kemp and Delegate Walter Fauntroy to reform public housing. Armey called passage of this legislation “the most heart-warming work I’ve done. It makes you feel like you’re really making a difference.”
Equally important during that second term, Armey passed landmark legislation that would first bring him national attention. Working with key Democrats like Ron Dellums, Les Aspin, and Joe Moakley and often times in opposition to the Reagan Defense Department, Armey succeeded in crafting and passing unique legislation to close down obsolete military bases. His one-on-one efforts with his colleagues and the nation’s editorial writers proved key to his ultimate success. As a result of Armey’s work, more than 100 obsolete bases are being closed, saving the taxpayers $4 billion per year.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in June of 1988, “By tempering his tactics without abandoning his goals, he is getting legislation passed.” As Armey himself noted, “You can be so ideologically hidebound that you can cut yourself out of the process.” Along with his housing reforms, it was the start of a long string of bipartisan efforts behind conservative goals.
After the success of base closing, Armey found a new challenge in federal farm policy. Growing up in the heart of farm country, he knew that federal farm programs often caused more problems than they solved. And his economic training taught him that government controls never work.
Armey and other conservative Republicans formed a bipartisan coalition with urban liberals like Chuck Schumer and Barney Frank. According to U.S. News and World Report, they saved taxpayers $14 billion by pressuring the agriculture committees to bring forward leaner bills. The work they did in 1990 laid the groundwork for the free market reforms passed in the 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation.
It wasn’t all bipartisanship for Armey in 1990. During that summer President Bush broke his no new taxes pledge and went to summit with congressional Democrats. That was too much for congressional Republicans. The Republican Conference, by a 3-to-1 margin, passed Armey’s resolution opposing “new taxes and all tax-rate increases as a means of reducing the federal budget deficit.”
His leadership in opposition to taxes in 1990 caused the House Republican leadership to realize that Dick Armey was influential within the Conference. Thus, in January of 1991, Armey was appointed ranking Republican on the Joint Economic Committee. The post allowed Armey to use his academic training to rebut Congressional liberals’ attacks on the Reagan economic record and to point out just how and how often the Democrats used funny numbers to buttress their policy arguments.
The 1990 budget battle had another more profound effect on Dick Armey. It made him wonder how virtually the entire Republican leadership in the House and Senate could support a tax increase that was so wildly unpopular among rank-and-file members.
Armey realized that he and the dominant philosophy he represented would continue to be ignored so long as those beliefs were not present in the room when key decisions were made. After careful consideration, in June of 1992, Armey decided to seek a place in the Republican leadership as Conference Chairman.
Many dismissed his candidacy as conservative noise-making. But Armey followed the same plan he used with base-closing and other legislative victories. He talked to his colleagues one-on-one, he made his case, and he was persistent.
On December 8, 1992, Armey won his race 88-84. While some tried to paint the race in ideological terms, Armey described it as a triumph of activism. He went on to turn the Republican Conference into the nerve center for communications and coalition building during the 103rd Congress.
Republicans were truly in the minority in January of 1993. The Democrats still controlled Congress and Bill Clinton was the newly inaugurated president. It was a challenge for Republicans.
Despite the losing battle to stop the largest tax increase in history and increasing bitterness over the Clinton health care plan, Armey was able to set aside partisanship to work for NAFTA.
When some people who put politics first suggested it was best to let the treaty die and weaken President Clinton, Armey instead lobbied his colleagues heavily, and took on the arguments made by NAFTA foes like Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.
Armey told PBS’ Charlie Rose, “We are taking the position that what is important for this nation, this hemisphere, and the world in freedom and prosperity for our children is more important than the politics of the moment and we are working with the President on this issue.”
By 1994, the public was disenchanted with Congress. Republicans, who were in the minority, believed that the American people were ready for a bold and dynamic legislative agenda. The result was the Contract with America, of which Armey was the main author.
The Contract was a collection of ten bills that Republicans would bring up for a vote during the first 100 days of a Republican-controlled Congress. The motto was: “If we don’t keep our word, throw us out.”
The Contract was a success. Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Throughout the summer and fall, many of his colleagues and most of the press refused to take Armey seriously when he told them he was running for Majority Leader in the 104th Congress. Armey once again proved the conventional wisdom wrong. He was unopposed for the Leader’s post.
Upon taking office Armey delivered the line he has repeated often since, “The American people didn’t give us power, they gave us responsibility.”
The 104th was one of the most productive Congresses in recent memory. Fully 60 percent of the Contract with America was signed into law, including a historic welfare reform bill. Congress passed the first balanced budget in a generation as well as overhauls of telecommunications, farming, and health care.
In 1996, Republicans earned their first re-election as a majority in 76 years. Working closely with Speaker Hastert in the 106th Congress, Armey will continue to manage the day-to-day affairs of the House.
Despite a reputation for confrontation, Armey’s record is one of bipartisanship. This will be important during the 106th Congress as Republicans continue to work with President Clinton.
As he said in 1993, “I’ve never had a confrontation with another member of Congress that was the source of any enjoyment. It’s a part of the job that has to be done. You can compromise on details, you can compromise on strategies, but you must never compromise on principles.”
In the past, Armey has been referred to as an idea machine and a one-man think tank. Armey has written three books, Price Theory: A Policy-Welfare Approach (1977), The Freedom Revolution (1995) and The Flat Tax (1996). During the 105th Congress he will continue his work on a major overhaul of the tax code, with special emphasis on his 17 percent flat tax.
Armey and his wife Susan attend Lewisville Bible Church. They have five children. Armey is an avid bass fisherman and believes in the restorative powers of fishing, where he can put aside the pressures of work and spend time with his wife and children.
Do you know where you still on the political spectrum? See “Political Beliefs, Where Are You” to find out where you stand.