Speaker Livingston: another GOP misstep

November 11, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Forced by circumstances beyond thei control, which all circumstances seem to be, to choose a new speaker, House Republicans, a proudly nonconformist and notably predictable crowd, thought long and hard, as thinking is measured here. After a few hours, they determined that the best speaker would be the man who praises the emblematic result of the last Congress, the $217 billion highway bill.

Bike paths to the 21st century

That bill, with its more than 1,850 bicycle paths, "demonstration projects" and other acts of uncomplicated rapacity, strikes Rep. Bob Livingston as a splendid jobs program:

"A lot of people are going to have highways because of that bill and a lot of people are going to have jobs because of that bill and a lot of people are going to be better off throughout America because of that bill. It was an expensive bill. But it was our priority to build highways, and we ultimately will probably look back on that bill and say it was a darn good thing we did. We look back on the '50s, saying that, 'My goodness, that national highway system of ours was sure expensive, but I'm glad we got it.' "

This is his story, and he's sticking to it: Republicans almost absent-mindedly produced the equivalent of the interstate highway system. My goodness.

Democrats are prospering by refusing to campaign the way most Democrats used to. They are not advocating large jobs programs and other instruments of economic redistribution. But, then, why do they need to? Some of the Republican largess for highway contractors will -- dare we say it? -- trickle down to unionized workers, a portion of whose dues will go to the Democratic Party. Ah, bipartisanship.

Having defended the indefensible, Mr. Livingston denied the undeniable. He praised the $520 billion tangle of twisted, smoking debris that was the Republican Congress' last act before its rendezvous with unamused Republican voters. "It wasn't a train wreck," he stoutly insisted.

Still, he does say, by way of halfhearted apology for the process that produced that spending extravaganza, that as speaker he will "make the trains run on time." Slay those railroad metaphors, particularly the last one, with its pedigree running back to Mussolini. But perhaps the House is happiest and healthiest when it resembles Mussolini's Italy -- despotism tempered by anarchism. Mr. Livingston plans to inhibit the latter by increasing the former.

The day after the elections, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich feared a revolution with Mr. Livingston as its Lenin, Mr. Livingston sent Mr. Gingrich a letter remarkable in its explicit brutality and its implicit condemnation of the speaker for running a disorderly House. The letter, sent in his capacity as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is evidence that Mr. Livingston has the sand necessary for leadership.

The letter laid out 15 "suggestions" -- peremptory demands, actually -- for Mr. Gingrich to accept "without exception." They included Mr. Livingston being present at leadership budget meetings affecting appropriations matters, Mr. Livingston running the committee "without being subject to the dictates of any other member," no committee member or subcommittee chairmen to be removed without his approval. And longer workweeks and fewer holidays to complete appropriations bills by June 30 each year, as the law requires. What a concept.

The pragmatic approach

Do not dwell on the incongruity of Mr. Livingston's tone of injured innocence concerning what his committee was complicit in. That the chairman felt he had to make 15 demands is a measure of the October chaos that handed last-minute leverage to the president and produced the $520 billion (one more time) train wreck that left many Republican voters wondering why retaining control of Congress matters. Mr. Livingston's job now is to move legislation that answers that question. To do so, he will have to understand that abandoning ideology is not pragmatic.

Many of the Republican Party's implausible moral tutors -- the New York Times and similar physicians, whose concern for the party's health is, shall we say, inconstant -- hail Mr. Livingston's selection as proof of the party's turn toward "pragmatism." That label, like many of those parroting it, is remarkably devoid of content.

By praising pragmatism, the tutors mean to disparage "ideology." "Ideology," a synonym for ideas taken seriously, is used when ideas are being disparaged by people short of their own and hostile to others'. When the politics of ideas withers, the politics of mere material interests flourishes, as do Democrats. Hence the tutorials.

A zest for ignoring the tutorials is part of the job description for Mr. Livingston and such other new leaders as (it is to be hoped) Jennifer Dunn and J.C. Watts.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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