Republicans, Just Waiting

Republicans in the House of Representatives are putting a cheerful interpretation on events, in the manner of the communique issued during the Spanish Civil War: "The advance was continued all day without any ground being lost." Their leader, Speaker Dennis Hastert, says, appearances of disarray notwithstanding, all 13 appropriations bills will be passed by the Aug. 7 recess.

This commitment to virtue should be judged in light of the statute requiring that they be passed by June 30 (which has happened just once in 25 years). By the time this orderly appropriating is finished, probably without a noticeable nibble out of the $1.8 trillion budget, the passionate core of the Republican Party's supporters may wonder why a Republican majority matters. However, when a congressional party defines itself with a promise of better process, substance--and passion--have largely leaked out of politics.

The House Republicans' former leader, the once passionate Newt Gingrich, watching this from a Washington think tank, has the serene detachment of one who knows that, for now, the big battles are over, and Republicans have lost them. He does not say this, but he does not need to. It is implicit in what he no longer says.

Five years ago, breathing fire and calling himself a "revolutionary," he was promising a fundamental revision of the post-New Deal relationship of the citizen to the federal government. The revision would be driven by a cohesive legislative majority, its cohesion making Speaker Gingrich a political match for the president. Since then Gingrich has learned that America's political system, in the context of mass media that magnify a president's single voice, does not allow for what he calls "a dominant legislative leader."

Today, with the parties competing to see which can seem most devoted to strengthening Social Security and Medicare, there is no more railing against "the welfare state." Instead, to get Republicans "back on offense" Gingrich wants his party to embrace limiting all levels of government to a cumulative total of revenues not exceeding 25 percent of GDP.

However, Americans are feeling so flush they are not ardent for tax reduction: Bob Dole's campaign promise of a 15 percent tax cut fell flat. Still, Gingrich thinks tax cuts can be sold not in terms of individuals' self-interest, but as moral imperatives for society--even as a response to the Littleton, Colo., shootings. For example, says Gingrich, if you want to do something about "latchkey" children, do something for parents who are working longer, and at more jobs, in order to pay for government's vastly increased bite of paychecks since the 1950s.

However, the assumption that taxation has affected parenting in a way that is causally connected to the eruption of evil in Littleton reflects a strikingly unconservative itch to declare Washington, and the doings of the political class, relevant to everything, anywhere. Gingrich does not really deny this itch. Instead he says: "This is not a country where 'no' is a winning political argument over time." But saying no to Washington's delusions of universal relevance is one of conservatism's chores.

Gingrich's tenure as speaker refuted an old tenet of the conservative catechism, the belief that congressional supremacy--Congress, not the president, controlling the political agenda--is a proper aspiration and a practical possibility. Now conservatives know that because it is not the latter, it cannot be the former. Conservatives often have looked askance at presidential power as democracy's temptation toward Caesarism. Now, having been in control of Congress but on the receiving end of a president using the powers of that office to control the nation's political conversation, conservatives want their own Caesar.

The emphatic failure of Gingrich's attempt to make the speakership into a counterpresidency may explain the extraordinary rush of so many Republicans to select a shadow president. As a result, George W. Bush has a larger lead for the nomination than his father, an incumbent vice president, had at this stage in 1987.

While congressional Republicans are awaiting the arrival of a Republican president with an agenda, they will pass the time by passing appropriations bills. However, if they really want to change the culture of Washington and the dynamic of national politics, they should multiply the number of those bills.

Why are there just 13 appropriations bills? That number was not graven on the heart of man by the finger of God. Better there should be 23. Better still, 33. Better, that is, if you believe in leaner government. The fewer the appropriations bills, the larger they are. The larger they are, the easier it is to pack them with pork, thereby building log-rolling majorities for spending in large chunks. The larger the bills, the more cataclysmic, in terms of governmental disruption, is a veto of them. So the fewer and larger the bills are, the stronger is the hand of a liberal president.

Mere possession of the veto power, combined with the now proven ability of a president to blame a hostile congressional majority for any governmental disruption caused by a veto, enables a president to drive Congress into preemptive capitulation. Congress negotiates with itself to produce "signable" bills.

Deconstructing the 13 appropriations bills would involve institutional disruption--constructive disruption--in Congress. The 13 bills are emanations of the parallel committee and subcommittee structures of the House and Senate. Senior members of those committees have vested interests in the status quo, in part because the committees and subcommittees have evolved complex, not to say cozy, patron-client relationships with interest groups. But Republicans could do the deconstructing: the president is not pertinent to such congressional reform. Until they show such boldness, some words attributed to Dwight Eisenhower will continue to apply to Washington: "Things are more the way they were than they ever have been before."