From the driver's seat, GOP finds bumps in the road

January 24, 1995|By Cokie & Steven V. Roberts

THE DOG caught the bus": That was the amazed assessment of a longtime Republican staffer on Capitol Hill the morning after last November's election. Now his colleagues and their bosses are getting an idea of what he meant. It's one thing to win an election after 40 years in the wilderness. It's another thing altogether to govern.

Republicans thought they had solved the "what next?" problem by promulgating their Contract With America as a road map for their first 100 days in office. And the Contract has given them a place to begin plus a sense of direction, telling them where to go from here. What it hasn't done: tell them how to get there, and whether they'll like the destination once they arrive.

This was a Contract drawn up by looking at the polls: a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution is popular, let's that; term limits always get a cheer, let's hear it for them; line item veto's a hit, do that too; and "ending welfare as we know it" might be Bill Clinton's pledge but it's Newt Gingrich who promises to deliver. It all seemed so easy! And it was, for outsiders looking in.

Now you find many Republicans looking through the Contract's fine print, searching for escape clauses. They've come to understand that many of its provisions rest on the principle of reducing their role in the decisions of government. Republicans who once castigated the "corrupt, careerist" Congress now speak proudly of serving in the "people's House," and they are less eager than they once were to diminish the power of the legislative branch. Some Republicans have not only developed an overnight institutional loyalty, but they've also come to realize that they have their own ideas about many government programs and they want the chance to try to enact them. That eagerness to take their turn at running things has considerably dimmed their enthusiasm for a term-limits law, which is headed for a major battle.

The first big battle's come over the constitutional amendment to balance the budget, forcing the House Republican leadership to delay action on Contract item No. 1 by at least a week. Democrats keep taunting the Republicans, chanting "tell us where you'll cut." That would make congressional "knees buckle" admits Majority Leader Richard Armey, who refuses to produce a blueprint for actually achieving a balanced budget by 2002. Mr. Armey's got his own concerns -- taxes. His version of the amendment includes a provision that any congressional vote to raise taxes require a three-fifths super-majority. But moderate Republicans, flexing their freshly strengthened muscle, are making it clear they won't go along with their leader. The Republican governors would like to insert another caveat in the amendment -- that it not result in shifting spending to the states. So far Republicans have failed to find common ground as the governing party on an issue that once seemed so simple.

The imperatives of governing become even more difficult for the new majority on complex policy matters like welfare reform. For years, Republicans railed against micro-management from Washington. "Give the states the money," they've argued. "Let them set the rules." But now that Republicans are the rule-makers that's a less attractive prospect. They've promised to produce a welfare bill for passage within the first 100 days. "I've often wondered if we would have done that if we knew we were going to win," mused Florida's Clay Shaw last week. Mr. Shaw chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee that will write the welfare bill, which, to put it politely, will be a challenge. The chairman of the full committee, Bill Archer of Texas, grumbled that it's a lot harder to fix welfare than to talk about it: "It's very easy to say we're going to end welfare as we know it and everybody jumps up and claps."

Mr. Shaw, who's worked on welfare policy for many years, conceded that he wasn't interested in sending a blank check to the states; he preferred to give them a framework for their welfare programs. But the "framework" he proceeded to outline looked like a complete house down to the curtains and rugs -- with rules governing the age and citizenship status of welfare recipients, the number of men who could be named as father of a child on welfare, the number of years someone could receive benefits, the amount of time health benefits would continue after cash benefits end, etc., etc. If Congress does not establish rules and regulations, Mr. Archer argued, it will be just a matter of time before news reports appear on how the states have misspent federal money. That, of course, was the chief reason for earmarking funds in the first place.

And while the Ways and Means Committee struggles with every detail of welfare reform, it's also under "Contract" to deliver several major pieces of complicated tax legislation within the first 100 days, while other panels are pledged to produce an anti-crime bill, an overhaul of liability laws and limits on damage suits, plus changes in national security policy and defense spending. Then there's the next 100 days.

Cokie Roberts is an ABC news commentator. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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