The Gingrich Congress

January 06, 1995

Thanks to a conciliatory and often inspiring speech by Speaker Newt Gingrich, the 104th Congress has gone to work in an atmosphere of remarkably good feeling -- a feeling that even extends to elements in the White House not averse to political forces pushing the nation toward the center. When one considers the ideological and emotional tensions that prevailed at election time, the transformation is heartening though transitory.

Mutual respect, not mutual conformity, has long motivated strong, tough, determined American politicians who look with awe on the enduring cohesion of our constitutional system.

Mr. Gingrich, much demonized by the political left for his combative crusade that finally ended 40 years in the wilderness for House Republicans, has recognized the obligations of the speakership in giving the liberals their due. He described Franklin D. Roosevelt as the greatest president of the 20th century. He said the Democrats deserved credit for leading the fight against segregation and expressed great empathy for the current plight of the black urban underclass.

But then, in laying down the gantlet for coming battles, he defined his goal as replacing the welfare state started by FDR with what he calls "an opportunity society." To liberals unimpressed by the new Gingrich rhetoric, this means further favors for wealthy Americans who made it big in the Reagan-Bush era. While both parties are clamoring for a "middle-class tax cut," despite its adverse effect on the deficit, the GOP tax break would go to families with yearly incomes of up to $200,000. President Clinton would peg the limit at $60,000. Somewhere in between lurks a compromise each party seeks to use for individual advantage.

Speaker Gingrich's other priority is a dubious one -- a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would give birth to accounting gimmickry astounding even by present standards. How much better it would be if he were to give pride of place to a line-item veto. This would allow a president to excise unneeded items from big money bills now sent to the White House on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

One much-overlooked remark by the new speaker deserves special notice. Instead of declaring Social Security financing immutable and off limits for all time, as timorous pols in both parties are wont to do, he said the system must be looked at in five or six years. That would come on his watch if he can hold the speakership for the newly allotted limit of eight years. And it would give him the chance to deal with the one issue that over time could bankrupt the country and lead to generational warfare.

So we salute the new speaker. We will disagree with him many times in the future, but at no time will we regret a change in legislative command that is institutionally very healthy for the Congress.

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