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The most common explanation proffered for the decision to replace Newt Gingrich with Louisiana’s Robert Livingston as Speaker of the House is fairly simple. Having lived through the near-death experience of the surprisingly disastrous midterm election, the Republicans communicated a desire to get rid of the firebrand, ideologically polarizing Mr. Gingrich and bring in the more low-key, get-along-go-along and moderate Mr. Livingston. So the media generally celebrated the end of the Republican Revolution and the return of politics-as-usual conducted with comfortable inside-the-Beltway comity.
There’s enough truth in that to satisfy the conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom usually misses some subtleties, and it has done so here. Although I would be one of the last to argue with Steve Moore of the Cato Institute, who returned my voice mail message suggesting a talk about “Republican leadership” with another voice mail saying he was fond of discussing oxymorons (and morons in general), a case can be made that the new House leadership might turn out to be more conservative, and more effectively so, than the previous group.
A few caveats. These are elected Republicans we’re talking about, and being effective or principled on behalf of limited government should be viewed as a rarity at best. And with a six-vote margin, with more than six of those members viewing themselves as moderates who will claim to have learned from the last election (as they learn from every experience in life) not to be controversial, and the Eternal Adolescent still in the White House with a veto pen, only a fool would expect major conservative initiatives from the 106th Congress, whoever the leaders were. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that they will resist the urge to go along with Clinton initiatives like a tobacco tax, campaign “reform” and the daily soundbite proposals to add a few bureaucrats here, start a small new program there and federalize more problems, real or perceived.
The new leadership might be able to manage that, even in the face of a media chorus about the “do-nothing” Congress, and just might accomplish something modestly more substantive.
For starters, although Newt Gingrich might accurately be viewed as a visionary and something of a firebrand, he was never much of a conventional conservative, let alone a libertarian budget-slasher. His roots were Rockefellerite and he betrayed them more than once, quite recently in his fascination with the notion of a “national greatness” (read: spurred by federal boondoggles) conservatism and his decision to fund the International Monetary Fund after all. (I still cherish an envelope from a faithful Republican reader addressed to “Judas Iscariot” Bock after I questioned Mr. Gingrich’s conservatism in a 1995 column.). By several measures — American Conservative Union, Americans for Democratic Action and ACLU tabulations — Bob Livingston’s voting record is more conservative than Newt Gingrich’s.
Take that record with a grain of salt, of course. When Bob Livingston became chairman of the Appropriations Committee four years ago, he made some interesting statements about how much he wanted to cut budgets. But like most Appropriations members, he soon became more tolerant of logrolling and pork barreling. During the last year he expressed annoyance at conservatives who tried to add policy “riders” on abortion and the like to appropriations bills. The transportation bill earlier this year and the last-minute budget in October, both of which bore Mr. Livingston’s mark, were disgraceful.
So it’s uncertain whether Speaker Livingston will look more like the conservative he has said he is or the big spender he has resembled recently. But with Orange County Republican Chris Cox (who was a speakership candidate for about two days) more powerful than before, with J.C. Watts of Oklahoma in the leadership, and with Texas’ Tom DeLay more influential than before, the leadership just might be more conservative than under Gingrich. And Majority Leader Dick Armey, who barely survived a challenge, is a firm free-market economist who was known to have chafed under Newt’s leadership, especially on the IMF. Perhaps Livingston will let Armey be Armey (hopefully with a little more polish and charm).
So what might a more conservative leadership do? Realistically, with that shaky majority, not much. But they might accomplish a few things.
I talked with Chris Cox, who said he hopes the chief priorities will be tax cuts (whether vetoed or not), institutional reform and some modest beginning on Social Security reform. He has been pushing a budget reform proposal for years that would simplify the process, make Congress pass an actual budget with the force of law before considering appropriations bills and (he believes) create institutional incentives for fiscal discipline.
When I suggested that this Congress might respond to what appears to be the new consensus by getting rid of the Independent Counsel statute and make sexual harassment laws considerably less onerous, he grumped that it might seem like rewarding Clinton. But he was swift to point out that he had voted against the Independent Counsel law every time it had been up for consideration in the past and would undoubtedly do so in the future, and was for a more common-sense approach to federal involvement in sexual harassment law. (I would prefer no federal involvement, but I promised to be realistic.)
The Congressional Budget Office is still filled with static-analysis economists who prefer models that purport to demonstrate that tax cuts are simply dreadful for economic stability and growth. They should be replaced by people who use more realistic “dynamic analysis” models.
As for tax cuts, the new Congress should keep in mind that the best kind of cuts — easier to support and defend politically and superior for stimulating economic activity and growth — are across-the-board reductions in income tax rates. (Yes, we really should get rid of the income tax altogether, but that won’t happen in this Congress.) It should pass them and dare Mr. Clinton to veto them and make the case for his preference — “targeted” tax cuts that reward certain favored constituencies and special interests without stimulating the economy or helping taxpayers in general.
Finally, the president conducts foreign policy, but Congress pays for it. Not a dime in foreign aid, for example, can be sent to North Korean dictator Kim Jong II without the House appropriating it first. Refusing to fund foreign-policy disasters would no doubt elicit disapproving tut-tuts in Georgetown drawing rooms, but would play much better in the rest of the country.
That’s a modest agenda. But if the new Congress under Mr. Livingston can manage some of it while stymieing Clintonian big-government proposals (it would help to remember that while most Americans didn’t seem to want him impeached, few respect him or take him as seriously as the media do) it just might be more effectively conservative than the 105th Congress was.