An Armey For The Revolution

Bill Clinton may soon start praying for Newt Gingrich's good health. The speaker-to-be is a moderate compared with his next in command, Rep. Dick Armey of Flower Mound, Texas. Armey, who will soon take over as House majority leader, once complained that Hillary Clinton sounds ""a lot like Karl Marx.'' She called him the ""Dr. Kevorkian'' of the health-care debate. Ever since that exchange, Armey says, President Clinton has barely deigned to speak to him at White House events.

On the surface, the new House majority leader seems like a Gingrich clone. Like Gingrich, Armey, 54, is a former academic, holding a doctorate in economics and having taught at North Texas State University. (He wrote a textbook on price theory and counts free-market philosophers Adam Smith and Ludvig von Mises as his intellectual heroes.) Armey, too, is on his second marriage, and, like Gingrich, he came to the public eye with heated rhetoric and creative publicity stunts. When he first came to Washington in 1985, he slept on a cot in the House gymnasium to save on housing costs. When House leaders evicted him, he moved the cot into his office instead.

Actually, Armey is far more conservative than Gingrich. He first ran for Congress on a platform that included phasing out social security. Once elected, he advocated eliminating federal aid to education, including student loans, which he called ""an income transfer from the working person to the one who looks for an easier route.'' More recently, Armey likened Clinton's national-service plan to ""a welfare program for aspiring Yuppies in America.'' It was Armey who engineered the ""Contract With America,'' with its tough tax and spending cuts, draconian welfare cutoffs, term limits and balanced-budget amendment. But even that doesn't go far enough for Armey. His personal goal in Congress, Armey told Newsweek, is replacing the progressive income tax with a flat 17 percent tax on everyone but the poor. Armey calls his plan ""a frontal assault on big government,'' and says it would allow taxpayers to figure out their federal taxes on a 10-line postcard. Critics charge it would bankrupt the Treasury. Even Gingrich has reservations, and Armey has promised not to slip his idea into House work on the contract.

Armey's political ascent has been unconventional. A farm boy from Cando, N.D., he graduated from the state's Jamestown College and taught economics at the University of Montana before moving to Texas in the late 1960s. He'd given little thought to a political career until one night when he was watching a congressional session on C-Span and told his wife, ""Honey, these people sound like a bunch of darn fools.'' She replied, ""Yeah, you could do that,'' prompting him to mount a quixotic campaign against a popular Democratic incumbent. Unexpectedly, Armey won, and he's been rolling up greater margins ever since in a conservative district that includes the suburbs of Dallas and Ft. Worth. He won re-election this month with 77 percent of the vote.

For all his ideological fervor, Armey is known as a Republican with whom Democrats can sometimes do business. He devised a bipartisan commission to close wasteful military bases. He teamed up with liberal Rep. Charles Schumer of New York to propose cutting farm subsidies. ""He's not a mean conservative,'' says Schumer. Rep. Jim Leach, a leading Republican moderate, adds that Armey is ""not anger-driven. He's got a cheerful, almost impish sense of humor.''

Armey has, of late, been turning on his charm. Comparing the First Lady to the founder of international communism, he says, was an ill-advised ""quasi-academic point.'' After the election, he announced that he would be too busy changing America to seek revenge on his political foes. Democrats accustomed to his combative rhetoric may find that disingenuous, but Armey says he is only being ""my natural, easygoing self.''

Newt Gingrich will have help in his quest to transform the House. The players:

The lawmaker who once donned a paper bag in protest over the House banking scandal will head the GOP's transition team. On his agenda: the largest overhaul of House operations since 1946.

Best known as author of the measure that restricts federal funding for abortions, the new judiciary chief will also be a leader of Republican efforts to pass a balanced-budget amendment and toughen Bill Clinton's new anti-crime law.

At the helm of powerful Ways and Means, Archer will be in charge of writing a variety of tax-relief measures, including a capital-gains cut. His committee may also preside over important GOP priorities like welfare and modest health-care reform.

As budget chairman, Kasich will take on the toughest challenge in the GOP agenda: slashing taxes, beefing up defense and balancing the budget, all without touching social-security benefits.