On November 9, Bill Clinton became a domestic-policy lame duck. Since then, all of the energy and initiative for changes in taxes, spending, and regulation have originated on Capitol Hill. Even the White House's "Middle Class Bill of Rights" was upstaged by Hill Democrats when incoming Minority Leader Dick Gephardt proposed his own middle-class tax cut three days before Clinton unveiled his plan.
The November election was both a rejection of the high-handed ways in which Democrats have controlled the legislative branch and a call for a less-intrusive federal government. The House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, have already implemented long-overdue changes in the ways Congress operates - eliminating committees, requiring members to be present at committee meetings to cast votes, and forcing Congress to abide by the laws under which businesses operate.
But the November elections cannot be considered truly revolutionary unless Congress does more than keep its own houses in order. If the GOP is serious about rolling back the federal government, it must tackle arcane budget rules, the tax code, and regulations. And it must overcome powerful advocates for statism both inside and outside the Republican party.
The mainstream press may have conferred near omnipotence on Gingrich. But his voice won't be the only one heard on Capitol Hill. Senators and other representatives will serve up ideas that Congress will tackle, including some the speaker doesn't like. Here are a few bellwethers worth watching:
The Republicans' new congressional majority is a tribute to the power of ideas as party-building political tools. And as House Majority Leader Dick Armey proved with his base-closing commission, clever policy making can be a great way to build an individual career. The need for new ideas will continue once the 100 days of the Contract with America have come and gone. Expect the Republicans to look to these innovators for both policy and packaging to define the post-Contract Congress.
Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.)
The Orange County congressman floated his first initiative for the new Congress on election night: The Republicans might, he said, reorganize the House committee structure to reflect an anti-statist agenda, starting with committees on revision and repeal and on privatization and deregulation. Following Gingrich's operating procedure, Cox announced the possible reorganization first to the public, via TV appearances and newspaper interviews.
Such fundamental restructuring was too hot for Newt's revolutionaries. But the trial balloon marked Cox as an idea man in the new Congress, getting him favorable coverage from George Will and other columnists. And it reminded the Republican majority not to fall in love with passing laws - that their self-proclaimed agenda is to roll back government, not to expand it in new directions.
A member of the counsel's staff in the Reagan White House, the 42-year-old Cox is best known to Congress watchers for his work on budget reform. In 1989 he cooked up a plan to impose discipline on congressional appropriations and control the automatic escalation of even "discretionary" federal spending.
The articulate Newport Beach representative proposed switching to a one-page budget specifying how much could be spent in each of the 19 categories that make up the federal budget. If Congress went over the specified limits, the president could rescind the additional spending. The Cox plan also would have frozen each agency's budget at the previous year's level unless Congress specifically increased the budget, thereby doing away with "baseline budgeting."
Cox is the second-ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, after Chairman John Kasich of Ohio. Before the election, Republicans disgruntled with Kasich's compromise on the crime bill and suspicious that Kasich might be too friendly to Democratic tax-raising schemes had hinted they might hand a future chairmanship to Cox. The threat apparently worked; in the weeks leading up to the election, Kasich became one of …