One Revolution That May Be Revolutionary

January 06, 1995|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington -- Newt Gingrich's power may be greater than now perceived, as will be seen after the ''Contract With America'' is dealt with.

The power comes partly from the ideology of modern conservatism; a key plank is ''too much government.'' Effectuating such a view is helped along by the rules of the House of Representatives and the words of the Constitution. Both tend to give extra power to a party that wants to shrink government, rather than expand it.

Mr. Gingrich talks about it frequently, but it hasn't fully registered. As he told C-Span, ''We're . . . going to go at every item, every day . . . and fight each one out. . . . [We] may win or lose the first round and come back again. . . . We're going to get up every morning trying to get a balanced budget with a smaller government. . . .''

That is not an idle boast. Mr. Gingrich knows that this conservative House has the functional equivalent of a ''one-house veto'' over the funding of discretionary government programs, if it chooses to use it.

It doesn't work that way for liberals. If liberals in the House want to create a new program, or raise the appropriation of an existing one, they have to get the House and Senate to pass it, and then hope the president will not veto it. Each step can be perilous.

But if a conservative speaker wants to stop funding an existing program, all he has to do is keep his Republican majority in the House firmly in line (and in fact it may mean just keeping the House Appropriations Committee in line). In theory, if the House does not ultimately approve an expenditure (for example, by ''zeroing it out'' on the budget or through rescissions), the program dies, stone cold dead, and there is nothing the Senate or the president can do about it.

A Republican Senate could act the same way, but it is presently a somewhat more moderate institution than the House, and unlikely to do so.

As it happens, this procedure doesn't involve anything in the Contract. All those items involve either constitutional amendments, new legislation or new internal House rules.

But suppose, for example, that Mr. Gingrich follows through on his oft-repeated statement that public funds for public television should be eliminated. (A bad idea, for reasons I hope to write about soon.) If he can keep the House from approving the funding, there will be no funding. Similarly, the House could defund the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Amtrak.

No one understands the situation better than Vin Weber, a former Republican House member from Minnesota who served on the Appropriations Committee, an early ally of Mr. Gingrich who remains part of his brain trust, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, a possible Senate candidate, and currently vice chairman of Empower America, a Newt-friendly conservative ginger group.

Mr. Weber says: ''A Republican House majority is limited only by its nerve and its discipline. The pressure to pass appropriations bills can be intense; after all, if they don't pass, the government, or parts of it, can be shut down. But if the House holds firm, their leverage only grows as the process goes on.

''I expect after the first hundred days, after the Contract is dealt -- with, that the speaker will try this [defunding procedure] on an experimental basis on a few items. If it works, we'll see more of it.''

The current wisdom in Washington is that the Contract will fare pretty well, but after that it will be tough sledding for Republican initiatives. Don't count on that. A party in power that wants to shrink government has the rules on its side. Big things can happen.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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