Good Newt, Bad Newt

NEWT GINGRICH has admirably taken a special interest in the District of Columbia. Last week, the Speaker attended a public meeting in the district, at which more than 1,000 residents voiced their opinions about the city's problems and about congressional involvement in solving them.

That involvement deepened last spring when the House imposed a financial control board on the city's tattered bookkeeping.

The Speaker, however, seems intent on showing that his interest in local affairs is less punitive than positive. He has a number of projects under way to improve the city's image.

Atop this agenda are D.C.'s expensive but sadly underperforming public schools. Gingrich and team have come up with a plan that includes scholarships for city kids to attend private schools (the old voucher idea by another name), revamped curricula, and special funds to rejuvenate outdated buildings.

People might reasonably wonder how this initiative fits with Republican drives to cut such urban-related programs as housing, assistance for the poor, and, yes, education.

Still, if the Speaker can move ahead in D.C. - with such liberal allies as Mayor Marion Barry and D.C.'s delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton - it could give the ''revolution'' started last November a different hue.

Less admirable is the Speaker's deal with the National Rifle Association, made soon after last year's election but only made public last week. Under this arrangement, no gun-control legislation will move while Gingrich is at the helm in Congress.

Not that this should surprise anyone. Most members of Congress have special constituencies, and conservative Republicans typically count the NRA among theirs.

Still, this comes from a man who portrays himself as the chief enemy of the status quo in Washington. What could be more status quo than committing oneself to do the bidding of a big contributor?

The NRA's point of view deserves to be heard in Congress. So does that of the majority of Americans who think restrictions on the ownership of certain kinds of firearms are eminently reasonable. The Speaker's prior commitment to the NRA raises suspicions, however, that only one of these points of view will get much of a hearing in the 104th Congress.

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