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New Congress Could Bring Good and Bad

Column by Matthew Neimark

Does it seem like the whole world (or at least the beltway crowd) is revolving around Newt Gingrich? It seems as if the media spotlight is off O.J. Simpson and onto our new speaker of the House. And why not? A new republican Congress might indicate an end to problems most Americans associate with the old democratic Congress: overspending, corruption, pork barreling, and gridlock.

Gingrich has promised change in the so-called "Contract With America," a promise to bring to a vote in their first 100 days in session a collection of issues including a balanced budget amendment, increased defense spending, and welfare and tax cuts. Careful analysis of the proposals indicates both enlightened ideas that may perhaps be of aid to our country, and gimmicks and demagoguery we have come to expect from conservative thinking.

One such proposal is a balanced budget amendment and line-item veto for the president. Passing these measures would indeed cut much spending from the budget because it would enable the president to pick and choose which programs he felt were worth the money.

The balanced budget amendment itself would force the government to spend only the money it had. This too at its surface appears extremely reasonable considering we as individuals are expected to spend within our personal budgets, lest we get rejected by every single credit card company.

However, both of these measures have serious downsides. The balanced-budget amendment could be especially dangerous during wartime or an economic crisis. There must be provisions in such an amendment that would guarantee that Congress could spend over budget in such times of crisis.

The line-item veto is also a measure fraught with potential difficulties. It gives the president entirely too much power and the founding fathers, in their delicate system of checks and balances, undoubtedly left it out of the Constitution. To get a budget signed containing programs not supported by the president, Congress will often introduce other programs the president supports as a conciliatory measure. This is a power Congress should definitely have and for this reason, there should not be a line-item veto for the president.

Republicans want to end unfunded state mandates. There is a constitutional basis for ending such mandates. Basically, the states have jurisdiction over certain local matters that the federal government should not be able to dictate; though there is a fine line between what should be considered a local matter and what should be considered a national concern and this distinction is debatable. Supporters of state mandates point out that American culture is relatively homogenous and it is not fair for residents of some states to either benefit from state programs or be forced to comply with a harsher law present in another state but absent in their state.

One such mandate currently under debate is speed limits. States which do not comply with the national 55 or 65 miles per hour speed limit will not receive needed highway funds. This speed limit is ridiculous under certain circumstances. A wide, paved country road in Arizona is easily traveled at 85 mph if there are not many other drivers on the road whereas 45 mph is a better speed limit at times of peak traffic. Traffic law is an issue that should be under state jurisdiction and for this reason, mandates governing traffic law should be removed.

There are other mandates in existence now that are constitutional and should remain in place. An example of such a mandate forces states to impose environmental regulations on companies in the state. The reason such a mandate should remain is that the environment is a national concern. The pollution of a factory in one state can traverse state lines in a variety of ways. Therefore such a mandate favors the rights of the entire country over those of the state.

There are many other proposals in the contract that are equally debatable. It is also questionable which proposals will get passed. Despite the fact that the House is now under the control of a unified republican majority and bills are likely to be passed very quickly there, they will be slowed in the Senate where the Democrats will filibuster when they feel necessary. The president also has veto power and it would be extremely difficult for the legislature to override a bill Clinton refuses to sign.

Therefore, don't expect too much of a difference to come out of our new Congress. There is opportunity for needed legislation to pass. There is also opportunity for harmful legislation to pass. Whether any or much legislation passes remains to be seen.