House Republicans meet tomorrow to decide who will lead them for the next two years. They should take the opportunity to prove that they've learned some important lessons from the Nov. 3 elections -- both from their own failures and from the successes of GOP governors. They'll have to show they are ready to make big changes, returning to their core principles and convincing Americans that they're a party of tolerance and compassion. That won't be easy.
Rep. Bob Livingston, the former New Orleans prosecutor who is now appropriations chairman, is certain to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker. Two of the next three jobs on the leadership ladder are up for grabs, with junior members challenging Majority Leader Dick Armey and Conference Chairman John Boehner.
While I like the incumbents -- Armey for his unstinting advocacy of the flat tax and Boehner for his stylistic resemblance to the late crooner Dean Martin -- both are symbols of a repudiated leadership and need to lose. The best replacements would be Jennifer Dunn and J. C. Watts, who would become the highest-ranking woman and African American in congressional history. Both Dunn and Watts are underdogs. If Armey and Boehner win, it's even more important for the speaker-designate to establish at tomorrow's meeting that this is the Livingston, not the Gingrich, Congress. Specifically:
Impeachment. Give it up. Livingston should say he wants to end the hearings immediately -- and he should be candid why. Something like, "While I personally view the president's conduct as reprehensible and while he has damaged the office, it is clear that voters believe he should not be removed."
There will be plenty of opportunities in the months ahead to remind Americans of Clinton's deficient character. Livingston should make it clear that Clinton will still face possible perjury charges after he leaves office, and Congress should pass a tough censure motion. But that's it.
Tax cut. "My number one priority this year," Livingston should say, "is a tax cut for all Americans."
With that simple sentence, he would: (a) rally to his side conservatives unhappy with the decision to end impeachment hearings, (b) show he is now leader of the entire House and no longer an appropriator, fixated on spending, and (c) establish an actual agenda on which Republicans can run in 2000.
There's good reason for a cut. Tax revenues have been rising 8 percent annually since Clinton took office and now represent 20.5 percent of gross domestic product, a post-World War II record.
Only a tax cut can stop politicians of both parties from spending a burgeoning surplus. In addition, calling for a tax cut would inoculate Republicans against an economic slowdown that is nearly inevitable before the next election and that could be the undoing of Al Gore. Cutting taxes, GOP candidates can say with accuracy, will boost a flagging economy. If the cut is vetoed, and the economy declines, they can say they told us so.
What kind of cut? "The fairest and most honest and direct way to provide genuine tax relief," wrote Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) in a letter to colleagues last week, "is through an across-the-board rate reduction." Absolutely. Cutting rates -- even by one percentage point in each bracket -- is the surest ticket to increased prosperity for everyone.
Limit spending. Federal outlays in fiscal 1999, which began Oct. 1, will rise more than 4 percent over 1998 -- nearly twice as much as inflation plus population growth.
"The extra spending was one-time-only," Livingston should say. "For the coming year, I will make three pledges: The budget resolution will be completed on time, the appropriations bills will all be passed before the August recess, and spending growth will be no more than 2 percent."
Term Limits. Livingston should reaffirm that the term limits on committee heads, imposed after the 1994 GOP victory, will stick. Thanks to those limits, nearly all chairmen will have to step down in two years.
The limits have changed the dynamics of the House, made seniority less important, junior members more influential and the speaker more powerful. Livingston would be foolish to acquiesce to having chairmen persist into the next century. After all, he will have a big say in choosing their successors, and that leverage can help him get his way this year.
Education. In his acceptance speech, Livingston should commit his party to reforming education. Again, it won't be easy. Republicans who respect the Constitution see education as a local issue, but voters don't always make such fine distinctions.
One answer is to assert that the best education solutions will result from the same process that produces the best business and intellectual solutions: liberty and competition. We need to open education up to free choices -- not just for Chelsea Clinton but for poor inner-city kids, too.
What can Washington do? A good first step would be a tax credit for money that families spend either to send kids to the school of their choice or to make donations to a private or government-run school.
On education, Livingston should concede, "Right now, we do not have all the answers, but -- with optimism and compassion, hewing to principle and working with our successful, practical governors -- we will find them."