Same old gridlock? Certainly not this is a new kind of passive gridlock


WASHINGTON -- A federal judge's declaring unconstitutional the line-item veto approved by Congress is yet another setback for the Republican leadership that two years ago promised a revolution in how Washington did its business.

The much-heralded GOP ''Contract with America,'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich's blueprint for a new era of conservatism, has proved to be an empty shell. Its call for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget failed and other proposals have been ignored or watered down by the Republican-controlled Senate. The leader of the revolution has himself been taken down quite a few pegs. These days he is busy less with trying to advance the GOP's conservative agenda than with trying to rehabilitate himself.

The speaker continues to belittle the significance of the $300,000 penalty slapped on him by Congress for ethical misconduct, by calling it a mere ''reimbursement'' of taxpayer money spent investigating him. But the unpaid fine causes grumblings of dissatisfaction even within his own party and erodes his ability to lead.

The court rejection of the line-item veto, unless reversed on appeal, saves Congress from its own folly in giving the president -- a Democratic president no less -- a powerful weapon with which to undercut the legislative branch's central role. But that fact will be no consolation to Gingrich & Co. as voters recognize that in yet another case their ''Contract with America'' has turned out to be heavy on public relations and light on result.

The Democrats are not in much better shape. The president of their party also occupies much of his time casting about for some noble, or even notable, purpose for his second White House term.

Having failed in his one big legislative initiative in his first term, the proposal to reform the nation's health-care system, and failed again in the 1996 elections to recapture control of Congress, Bill Clinton is now reduced to feel-good responses to relatively modest challenges.

His second-term ideas run from giving federal jobs to a handful of former welfare recipients to calling for uniforms for public-school kids and other such band-aids for minor cuts and scrapes on the nation's social anatomy. His goal of wiping out illiteracy and creating a nation of computer-competent students is not quite comparable to John F. Kennedy's ringing call to put a man on the moon and return him safely in a decade's time.

Gridlock of imagination

It all amounts to another kind of Washington gridlock -- not partisan confrontation and standoff on major issues and legislative remedies, but rather a gridlock of imagination about how to give purpose and direction to the nation.

The condition is common in second terms. The incumbent starts thinking less about tactical matters in dealing with Congress and more about how he will look in the history books. Mr. Clinton has not yet hit upon any big objective beyond ''building a bridge to the 21st century.'' Unless he can articulate effectively what he wants to achieve when he gets to the other side, and achieve it, it will remain just a slogan.

Speaker Gingrich and the Republicans are treading water, too. The two-year battle to achieve a balanced budget has lost whatever public appeal it ever had. Even a successful conclusion to the negotiations between the Republican congressional leadership and the Democratic White House will leave doubts about whether balance actually will be achieved down the road. It is not the sort of issue to get voters on their feet cheering either party.

The fact that the Cold War is over and the threat of nuclear holocaust has been greatly diminished has ushered in a very welcome era of calm. But it seems also to have produced two political parties bogged down in small thinking and seemingly devoid of any inspirational purpose.

Perhaps this gridlock of drift is preferable to the legislative stalemates of recent years. But it is not likely to persuade voters that what goes on in Washington has much impact on their lives, or their dreams.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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