After the 100 Days

IN the debate over the Contract With America -- good, bad, or indifferent? -- indifferent still has plenty of support. Polls show a lot of Americans still don't have much of a clue about what the Contract is or how it affects them. Those who express an opinion are about evenly split between saying the first 100 days of Congress, completed today, was a success or a failure.

Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Republicans do deserve credit for their accomplishments. The Speaker has maintained party discipline, made sure every item in the Contract was debated and voted on, and produced Republican majorities in every key vote. The party also reformed the way the House does its business. The change to a GOP leadership itself was a needed breath of fresh air.

The party now sets the national agenda, at least in this regard: The federal government is going to get smaller. The upcoming budget debate will be over which parts shrink the most. Will the pain fall disproportionately on a few groups? The idea that Americans are overly dependent upon their federal government is debatable. But if true, that dependency must be reduced in a manner -- and at a speed -- that is least harmful.

The reader might think that we are speaking principally of welfare. But government assistance to poor Americans represents only a tiny fraction of federal spending. The effort to revise welfare should center on reforming the way the system operates in order to encourage work and responsibility, not on trying to spend as few dollars as possible on the needy.

Tax breaks to corporate America, including farm subsidies, hold more promise as significant savings. If a deficit crisis did not loom over America, the Defense Department might reasonably proceed with weapons development and procurement, stay at a high level of fighting readiness, and maintain the resources to fight two regional wars simultaneously. But in this budget climate, something must give: probably the two-war capability.

Too much should not be made of Congress's first 100 days. Comparing it to Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days in 1933 stretches credulity. Speaker Gingrich is not president. He and Senate leader Bob Dole do not command an overwhelming majority in Congress, as FDR did. And, unlike the Depression, there is no unifying national crisis.

House Republicans have tried to portray frantic activity as accomplishment. But change in itself is neither good nor bad. A revolution, if that is what this is, must put forth lofty goals and win broad support. This Congress does not yet qualify on either score.

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