Now what?

April 05, 1995|By Marianne Means

Washington -- BY ANY measure, the Contract with America that dominated the first 100 days of the Republican-controlled House has been a spectacular political stunt.

As the April 13 end of the test period nears, Speaker Newt Gingrich's agenda drives the political dialogue and the razzle-dazzle celebrating his achievement is already nearly as ubiquitous as the O.J. Simpson trial.

It has also, however, been a spectacular example of irresponsible governing. Massive restructuring of the national political and social fabric should be done thoughtfully, after deliberation and debate, not in confusion and haste to meet a public relations deadline.

Today's sound bite and history's judgment are two different matters.

Conclusive proof of Newt Gingrich's folly will only appear later, when House legislation passed with speed and fanfare but no broad consensus doesn't make it past the Senate or a presidential veto. Or when it does, and is followed by terrible consequences the House never considered.

Political experts may be impressed with the fast pace of the legislation cranked out by House Republicans and the importance that the newcomers attach to fulfilling the "contract" they promised in last year's election. The unusual discipline and speed were indeed remarkable.

But the substance of what was passed is what really counts. And there are ample signs here of wasted opportunity. He broke the gridlock, but to what purpose?

Mr. Gingrich overreached much as President Clinton did two years ago with a sweeping health plan that was frightening because nobody understood what it was, or would do. Mr. Gingrich too misread the public taste for evolutionary progress -- he saw it as uncritical lust for radical, upsetting change.

The devil, as Ross Perot used to say, is in the details. And Mr. Gingrich has demonstrated little interest in assessing the impact of his schemes on the economy, on the middle class, on the public good. The idea was to sell a concept, not worry about whether it would work.

What Mr. Gingrich has accomplished is to make a clear philosophical statement about GOP notions of government purpose. His agenda is aimed at forcing the elderly, poor and young to pay for reducing the deficits, passing social responsibilities to the states, vastly curtailing federal services and freeing corporations from regulatory and financial obligations imposed for the general good.

This represents a sweeping reversal of federal policy since the New Deal more than a half century ago -- not even Ronald Reagan, for all his anti-Washington talk, really reduced the size of government.

But it has put Mr. Gingrich on the map as the most daring, aggressive and newsworthy speaker in modern memory.

Yet, as a Gingrich predecessor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, used to say, it takes a skilled carpenter to build a barn but any fool donkey can kick it down.

The House GOP agenda was heavy on procedural gimmicks, like a balanced budget amendment and congressional term limits; on killing policies already in place, such as unraveling last year's crime bill and gutting environmental, safety and health regulations; and on shoving responsibilities off onto others, such as welfare bloc grants to the states and the line-item veto to the president.

The basic GOP theme of slashing federal spending is, in general, a worthy goal in itself. But it becomes suspect when done without much concern for the specifics of who gets hurt and is accompanied by demands for huge tax cuts for business and the wealthy. Is the motive really to make government more efficient or to justify revenue-losing tax giveaways to greedy GOP contributors?

Mr. Gingrich told Newsweek this: "The role of a national leader is, first, to nurture the culture; second, to encourage civic duty and third, to strengthen the private sector."

He sounded like a provincial small-town mayor or perhaps President Calvin Coolidge, whose do-nothing government dogma was that "the business of America is business."

Mr. Gingrich began to run out of momentum as the House moved from popular agenda items to more controversial ones, such as the term limits he refused to apply to himself and child tax credits for families earning up to $200,000 a year.

It will be heavy going from now on. Beginning next month, the GOP-led Congress will be required to reveal previously vague budgetary details about who wins and who loses in an idealized, downsized government.

The early House cuts or slowdowns in such popular programs as school lunches have already stirred up a storm.

Wait until the elderly get the message that Medicare is due for severe pruning. Wait until voters figure out that Medicaid cuts for the poor really hurt everyone else by driving up hospital, doctor and nursing home costs for patients who pay. Wait until localities realize that sharp budget cuts mean the seawall needed to protect the city won't be built and passenger train service could end or become prohibitively expense.

Most of Mr. Gingrich's 100-day agenda is unlikely to become law in recognizable form before the next presidential election, if then. Presidential politics is already intruding, as President Clinton re-enters the fray with his own sharp rhetoric and the crowded GOP field divides up the troops and siphons away attention.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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