Politics

GOP: Get Ready for a Shock Next Tuesday

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The Washington Post, Tuesday, October 27, 1998; Page A23

Republicans now appear likely to turn in a disappointing performance next Tuesday -- despite the fact that they should be heavily favored in an off-year election with the president in the dock for impeachment.

Since 1938, the party that holds the White House has lost an average of 32 House seats in years when there is no presidential election. But it would take a miracle for Republicans to come near that norm. The reason: fear of pushing an agenda that inspires people to get out and vote. In fact, I would not be shocked to wake up on the morning of Nov. 4 to find that Democrats had recaptured the House.

Nor would that be a tragedy for those who believe in what Republicans -- and, indeed, most Americans -- say they believe in: lower taxes, a smaller federal government, more power for states and cities, more responsibility and freedom for individuals and stricter accountability for public officials.

A loss next Tuesday would be a shock to the GOP system -- a bracing tonic for a party that has grown complacent and replaced principles with tactics (and not very good ones at that). It would spark a serious reassessment of strategies and values for the critical election in the year 2000. And it would mean the departure of a leadership crew that was aggressive at taking power but tentative at exercising it.

Case in point: the pork-laden budget that was patched together and finally approved Oct. 20. Having diddled for six months, the GOP Congress produced a disaster:

More spending. By invoking phony emergencies, Congress boosted outlays this year by $20.8 billion and still kept below budget caps. Budget expert Stanley Collender of Fleischman-Hillard says that "nothing they called an emergency was really an emergency." Never before has Congress so brazenly and cynically circumvented the rules.

Farm subsidies, computer fixes, military spending -- all should have been handled through the regular appropriations process but would have required offsetting cuts in spending elsewhere. As a result, the surplus is melting away.

Chase Securities now predicts that it will narrow this year "to $50 billion or less from about $71 billion" in 1998. "This compares with official forecasts of a surplus of about $80 billion." The GOP Congress has confirmed our worst fears -- that, since politicians can't keep their hands off money, surpluses always lead to more spending.

No tax cut. We've just had the first surplus since 1969 and the largest in history. The main reason was a flood of tax revenues, which have risen 8 percent annually since 1992 and now represent a record chunk of GDP. The economy is slowing and needs some juice, yet, incredibly, the new budget contains no tax cuts -- once the heart of the Republican agenda.

IMF surrender. After nearly a year of resisting additional funds for the IMF, which has exacerbated the global financial crisis, Republicans agreed to $18 billion in new funding (roughly $180 per U.S. household). While Speaker Newt Gingrich claims that "Republicans secured the most sweeping reforms in the [IMF's] history," the Wall Street Journal's news pages had it right: "Republicans appear to have won few major concessions in their efforts to reform International Monetary Fund lending practices."

Bad precedents. Washington continues to usurp the constitutional powers of state and local governments -- first in law enforcement and now in education, with $1.2 billion in the new budget to establish a teacher hiring program. Education is a local matter. Why not simply cut federal taxes and let states decide whether they want to raise revenues to hire more teachers -- or better yet, give them good training?

Congress set another bad precedent by voting $5.9 billion to subsidize farmers, flouting the Freedom to Farm Act, whose purpose was to make U.S. agriculture more efficient (and more free) by getting the federal government out of the business of fixing prices.

What's particularly troubling is that GOP leaders are proclaiming success. Even Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, has turned into a cheerleader. "The Democrats are doomed," he wrote.

It's true that President Clinton was thwarted in his attempt to pass bills on tobacco (though Republicans on the Commerce Committee supported the legislation) and HMO regulation (though a Republican congressman was an initiator).

But there should be successes, considering the changes, which began 20 years ago, in American attitudes toward government and the dire straits of the president. Whatever happened to Social Security reform and to initiatives to end racial preferences in hiring and contracting?

But it is the failure of Republicans on the budget that could lead to a failure in the election Tuesday. The budget is supposed to reflect a party's most cherished beliefs. This one makes voters wonder why they should support a gang not much different from the one that ran the Hill for 40 years.

"Failure" next Tuesday does not require the loss of the House. Even if Republicans gain 10 seats there and two or three in the Senate (the luck of the draw has meant a weak field of Democratic incumbents), they will have blown a remarkable opportunity -- not merely to gain seats but to remind Americans, forcefully, of their policies and their ideals.

After all, that is what politicians of both parties should be doing -- standing for principle. Otherwise, why not just go back home and run an insurance agency?