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Students Should Be Skeptical of Republican Contract

Guest column by Odysseas Kostas

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Thomas Jefferson

Take a second to think about what that means. Liberty did not come easy nor will it hang around without us remaining watchful. We need to raise political awareness on campus, and remind students that while our studies are important, our first responsibility is as citizens. We don't go to school to put our heads in brown paper bags and forget the world in which we live. If your professors try to tell you different, they're wrong.

I am a senior in biology here at MIT, and would like to share my thoughts with you on the "Contract with America." I was one of the many organizers of the March 23rd protest against the Contract with America here at MIT. From the coverage in the Tech, however, I'm not sure what impact it had on students.

Political apathy plagues MIT most notably displayed by the ignorance of students as to the legislation currently passing through the 104th Congress. A quick straw poll of 50 random students at Athena a few weeks ago asked found that 40 students hadn't heard of the Contract with America. For a school of the caliber of MIT, we should expect less ignorance.

Stay informed. Pick up the newspaper every once in a while. Or, if you agree with Newt Gingrich and consider the New York Times and Washington Post "fascist" (I do not misquote him on this) read another paper. But read something. And of course, question what you read. Always ask yourself, "Why is this person telling me this? What does he or she have to gain?" Before you know it, you too will be participating in the American process. Amazing.

I don't disagree with everything in the Contract. It would be quite naive to imagine that the world is based on extremes, that I either have to completely agree or disagree with the Contract. And I didn't protest the Contract because it represents Republican or Democrat legislation, which would mean neglecting the Democrats who have supported the Contract on some issues. I protested because I disagree with it on many important issues.

Look at the Contract's progress as it passed the House, because this issue alone justifies the protest. The Contract's self-imposed 100-day deadline circumvents any natural and healthy review of the issues by Congress, itself, or the American people. Bill Miller, a spokesman for Representative Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), acknowledged that " part of the problem with the 100-day sprint is that you can't always be as thorough as you want."

But we're told that the push is necessary, that there is a popular mandate driving the Contract with America. Where? Congressmen certainly didn't get it at the voting booth. Only 38 percent of the electorate voted in the last election. Of these, only 52 percent voted for Republican candidates endorsing the "Contract with America". A little multiplication and we get that only about 20 percent of the voters endorsed the Contract. Certainly not a large majority or a mandate for change.

A Newsweek poll taken about a month after the last election found that 47 percent of those surveyed had never heard of the Contract with America. About half of all Americans had not heard of the Contract, but yet there is a popular mandate, or majority of Americans, backing the legislation. Interesting. Polls today show similar numbers, that on the whole Americans are generally uninformed about the Contract.

Let me address specific issues of the legislation - issues like financial aid. I am obliged to speak for fellow students and mention cuts to financial aid for higher education, and I'm not talking about the money lost for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Closest to home are the proposed cuts to the Stafford Loan interest exemption and school interest subsidies. Such cuts would purportedly increase student loan indebtedness 20-50 percent and would result in an estimated $20 billion increase in loan and interest costs over the next five years for US families.

Other questionable legislation includes a bill that passed the House weeks ago that dramatically weakened the Fourth Amendment, specifically the exclusionary rule barring evidence that police acquire through illegal searches. Proponents of the measure argue that criminals escape conviction because of "technicalities" such as the exclusionary rule, but it affects only 2 percent of felony cases.

The bill weakens the exclusionary rule by allowing the use of illegal evidence if the officer obtained it in "good faith" that he was acting legally, regardless of a search warrant. Former Republican Senator Warren Rudman explained it well when he wrote in 1991, "Under this proposal the police would have a powerful incentive to - to use a polite word - customize and shape their good faith after the fact."

The Contract with America originally proposed to cut food stamps entirely, but current legislation proposes cutting 11 percent or $16.5 billion. Presently 27 million people are on food stamps, slightly more than half of them children and families with full-time workers who are nonetheless below the poverty line. Such cuts to welfare would not be so drastic if reasonable alternatives were suggested to replace the cuts, but there are no real plans to do so.

What do most Americans think? In the same Newsweek poll, 73 percent of Americans would be upset if new limits on welfare cut off benefits to poor families even when no work is available, but that is exactly what is being done.

We could always blame out-of-wedlock parents, as many would have us do, but there doesn't appear to be a correlation between welfare grants and rate of births. The teen birth rate in the United States is much higher than in other western industrialized countries, higher than those having more generous welfare benefits. Since the early 1970's, U.S. welfare benefits have fallen sharply in purchasing power while out-of-wedlock childbearing among teens and older women rose.

With all these cuts to social programs, the House has proposed to increase defense spending (at a time in our history when such an increase is questionable) and to implement a series of tax cuts, most for the wealthiest Americans. Last week the House passed a $189 billion tax cut over five years, while at the same time proposing a $315 billion cut in discretionary spending over five years.

According to the Treasury Department, the tax bill would cut taxes by about $99 billion a year when phased in. About half the total cuts would go to the wealthiest 10 percent of households. A fifth of the cuts would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of families. To help pay for the measure, the bill would cut more than $60 billion out of welfare programs and 17 percent out of discretionary programs by the year 2000.

The balanced budget amendment would do more harm than good. For instance, long-term public investments such as scientific research, laboratories, or job training would be the first cut as they would not produce the immediate benefits so necessary for re-election.

As Russell Baker wrote, Congressmen "are simply too weak-kneed, they say, to resist dolling out federal gravy. . . . Surely these wretched sinful wastrels who wanted - sincerely wanted - to mend their ways, surely they could control their evil habit if only it were proscribed by that sacred document, the Constitution."

There are many other issues: the balanced budget amendment, term limits, the line-item veto (talk about a sudden shift in power. Not the king, the President), the personal responsibility act, cuts to public education. Clearly, I could continue to elaborate. I hope that I have at least whetted your appetite, and awoken within you a cause for concern. Take a role in your life.