House Republicans go for prime time

April 02, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a neat bit of late 20th-century symbolism, House Speaker Newt Gingrich plans to take to the national airwaves Friday.

His prime-time speech, marking the end of Congress' first hundred days, is in line with everything the new Republican majority is doing. It's bold. It's calculated. And it aspires to be historic.

Since the dawn of the television age, the nationally broadcast address has been a presidential privilege. The "hundred days" itself has always referred to the start of an energetic new presidency, not a Congress.

By borrowing those images, Mr. Gingrich and his Republican allies are trying to build on what they have already accomplished -- a remarkable shift in national agenda-setting from the White House to the House of Representatives.

Over the past three months, under Mr. Gingrich's tightly controlled leadership, House Republicans -- not President Clinton -- have taken the lead. In a frenetic blur of legislative activity, they've profoundly changed the way Congress -- and, conceivably, America -- works.

"No doubt about it. It is absolutely historic," said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. "There is no period in which you have had so much initiated by one of the legislative bodies. It's stunning. . . . If the president had done as much in his first hundred days in 1993, we'd be saying, 'Holy moly.' "

And it's only the beginning. Coming next: radical surgery on the guts of the federal budget, the New Deal and Great Society programs created over the past half-century or more.

Those spending cuts are essential to the Republicans' over-arching goal of sharply reducing the power of the national ,, government and its influence over the everyday lives of Americans.

By the time Congress heads home for its Easter recess next weekend, House Republicans will have delivered on their promise to bring to a floor vote all the pieces of the conservative platform they signed last fall, the extremely ambitious "Contract with America."

They will have passed about 90 percent of the "contract," which is, by nearly all accounts, the most conservative agenda to hit Washington since the 1920s.

Among the measures already approved by the House: the most sweeping reform of the welfare system in 60 years; the line-item veto, a potentially historic grant of budget authority from Congress to the president; major changes in the legal system; new limits on the federal government's ability to regulate businesses and individuals; and a revolution in the internal operations of the House itself.

The Republican leadership, using computerized flow charts adapted from the construction industry, has directed the action from the speaker's office, vastly diminishing the traditional authority of committee chairmen. To make it tougher for new power centers to form, a three-term limit has been put on committee chairmen and House leaders, including the speaker.

"The old fiefdoms are broken up," proclaims Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, the No. 2 figure in the House Republican hierarchy.

Strong party unity

One key to the GOP's early success has been an unusually high degree of party unity, especially among the freshmen and sophomores who hold a majority of the Republican seats.

Still strangers to one another, and to the public, still scrambling to put their office staffs together and learn their way around the Capitol, they have bound themselves to the spirit of the contract in ways that few would have predicted.

"They really, firmly believe in it, and much more so in the post-election period than the pre-election period," says James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor who is interviewing 60 House members for a book on the new Congress.

"A lot of members didn't take it seriously when they signed it. They never expected to be in the majority in the first place."

Now they're in charge and in demand.

The other day, a dozen reporters surrounded Rep. James C. Greenwood after the second-term Pennsylvania Republican emerged from a strategy session on the party's tax-cut proposal.

When all the questions had been answered, a brave newsman asked one more, the one that was on all his colleagues' minds: "Uh, sir, could you tell us your name?"

Enormous power

In a break with tradition, the new young stars of the Hill, many of them conservative outsiders elected on a pledge to shake up Washington, find themselves holding enormous power.

Rep. David M. McIntosh, a 36-year-old freshman from Indiana, came to Congress hoping for a seat on the Commerce Committee so he could work on speeding the approval process for new pharmaceuticals.

Instead, he was made a subcommittee chairman -- something that would have been unthinkable for a freshman during the decades of Democratic control -- and was put in charge of reforming regulatory policy for the entire government.

Says Mr. Gingrich, with what some regard as characteristic overstatement: "This is the most successful effort to change this city since the beginning of the New Deal."

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