After the revolution, deflated hopes

October 04, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Thermidor, the name of the month in the French Revolutionary Calendar in which Robespierre fell and the Reign of Terror ended, has become the name by which historians denote an era of waning revolutionary ardor.

Conservative critics of the 104th Congress complain that it went directly from the ancien regime to Thermidor, without any intervening revolution.

The deflation of their aspirations is symbolized by Newt Gingrich brandishing buckets in which ice had been delivered to congressional offices since before the invention of refrigeration. The Commerce and Education departments may not be finished, but ice deliveries are, so there.

Some depressed conservatives -- one of them calls the 104th "the Bush administration in drag" -- may think that the end of the 104th was in its beginning, in its opening day hoopla, which included, among much else, a children's party featuring the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Newt Gingrich. Back then it was hard to have any Washington gathering of two or more without having the speaker speak, and at the children's party he stuffed into the wee minds this explanation of the event's Larger Meaning:

"We wanted the Power Rangers here because they're multi-ethnic role models in which women and men play equally strong roles."

There has been too much blather, much of it from Mr. Gingrich, who has paid dearly for his refusal to heed the advice given to him -- early and often -- that he ration the portions of himself that he serves to the public. Still, measuring the 104th against history rather than its own rhetoric, it was remarkably consequential.

Intelligent people differ concerning the prudence of the 104th's most important act -- repeal of a 60-year old entitlement to welfare. But the repeal ranks with the 1981 tax cuts, Medicare, the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts and the Taft-Hartley Act as one of the most momentous legislative acts of the last six decades.

Constitutional fact

The 104th has demonstrated the constitutional fact of congressional supremacy. Bill Clinton began his presidency talking only about "reinventing" government so that it could be more efficient while doing more. He now accepts, at least rhetorically, that government should do less. This underscores the fact that Democrats are more "out of power" today than when George Bush was president.

Regarding spending, the actions of the 104th have been more conservative than even the aspirations of the Reagan administration. Last year, for the first time since 1969, discretionary domestic spending was reduced.

Sixty-five percent of the Contract With America's 74 legislative provisions are now laws or congressional rules. Of the major provisions, the House passed all but the term-limits constitutional amendment.

The 104th's impressive record has been obscured by the fog of war rhetoric from its leader. Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, has obtained tapes of some of Mr. Gingrich's frequent conversations with Army officers. They are filled with military jargon ("after-action reviews," "small unit cohesion") and allusions, such as, "I think our budget fight is a lot like (the Duke of Wellington's) Peninsula Campaign."

Mr. Gingrich must know what Wellington said of some troops sent to him for that campaign: "I don't know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they terrify me."

It might be harmless hyperbole for him to say "I am in combat everyday," but he scares people when he says things like: "The left at its core understands in a way Grant understood after Shiloh that this is a civil war, that only one side will prevail. ..."

He is wise to brandish the ice buckets, for reasons Sen. Pat Moynihan learned when campaigning in 1994. Mr. Moynihan found little public interest in the failure of the Clintons' gargantuan health care proposal, but got warm recognition when he mentioned he had "decriminalized baby-sitting."

You remember: Mr. Clinton's first two choices to be attorney general came a cropper because they, like millions of others, had violated the law requiring payment of Social Security taxes on domestic workers' wages of more than $50 per quarter (a sum unchanged since 1950). Sally next door baby-sits for $5 every Saturday and you forget her payroll taxes, you are an outlaw.

Senator Moynihan helped get the $50 changed to $1,000 annually. "Here was something (people) could relate to, that mattered to them personally," he said. Ice buckets and baby-sitting reflect the miniaturization of politics, itself a conservative achievement.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/04/96

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