House Speaker Newt Gingrich, promising to press forward with the conservative revolution launched by House Republicans, appealed Friday for public support to help Washington remake the government and balance its budget to “give our children and our country a new birth of freedom.”
In a 25-minute address dwelling largely on the theme of a national economic revival, the Georgia Republican who helped engineer the Republican takeover of Capitol Hill combined lofty rhetoric with a harsh denunciation of past government practices, which he characterized as a “moral and economic failure.”
“This is the year we rendezvous with our destiny to establish a clear plan to balance the budget,” said Gingrich, the first congressional leader to deliver a prime-time, nationally televised address.
“It can no longer be put off.”
While cuts in Social Security will remain off limits, Gingrich said, potential reductions in defense spending and “corporate welfare” remain on the table as GOP leaders devise a detailed plan for slashing federal spending.
Speaking from his Capitol office, where he sat perched on the edge of his desk, Gingrich seemed relaxed as he gestured easily, looking directly into the camera, fresh from an afternoon nap.
To underscore his points, he made use of an assortment of props, including an old-fashioned vacuum tube, a microchip, a chart on illegitimate birth rates and a congressional voting card that he derisively called “the most expensive credit card in the world (that) for two generations has been used to pile up trillions in debt that our children and grandchildren will eventually have to repay.”
The vacuum tube that Gingrich brandished during his speech was a mid-1950s model that he said is still being used by the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system to “keep you safe.” He then held up a microchip with the computing power of 3 million vacuum tubes, and said that the FAA could be purchasing similar chips were it not for the government’s “complicated” and “wasteful” purchasing rules, which have delayed such purchases by seven years.
While he proudly recited the list of legislation already passed by the House, Gingrich told the nation that much remains to be done beyond the promises contained in the “contract with America” that guided House GOP lawmakers during the first 100 days of the new Congress.
Congress, he said, “must totally remake the federal government--to change the very way it thinks, the way it does business, the way it treats its citizens.”
Thus, Gingrich said, the GOP campaign manifesto “has never been about curing all the ills of the nation. One hundred days cannot overturn the neglect of decades. The contract’s purpose has been to show that change is possible.”
Referring to the one contract item that the House failed to pass, Gingrich vowed to make a vote on congressional term limits “the first vote of the next Congress” and urged the public to exert pressure on members to vote for the measure.
Gingrich also promised congressional hearings this summer “on bold, decisive reform of the income tax system . . . to bring some sense to the disorder and inequity of our tax system. Among the possible reforms, he said, is “a simplified flat tax.” Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) already have appointed a commission to study the matter, with recommendations due by October.
The 51-year-old Speaker vowed to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security and to “improve” Medicare by granting seniors “new options” that he did not specify.
Repeatedly, Gingrich returned to the need to balance the budget. He said that Republicans next month will propose a budget that attains that goal by the end of seven years. Earlier in the day, Gingrich called on President Clinton to do the same.
“No truly moral civilization would burden its children with the economic excesses of the parents and grandparents,” he said.
Gingrich said that a balanced budget can be achieved “without touching a penny of Social Security and without raising taxes,” asserting that the goal can be reached even as “spending overall can go up every year” by about 3% a year.
“Social Security is off the table,” he declared.
Still, Gingrich said, “that leaves a lot on the table--corporate welfare, subsidies of every special interest,” including defense. “I’m a hawk, but a cheap hawk.”
In passing, he vowed to enact health care reform, specifically guaranteeing that workers who change jobs would be able to keep their insurance.
Gingrich indicated that he harbors no illusions about the fight ahead--with Democrats and quite possibly with many members of his own party--over the deep spending cuts necessary to reach a balanced budget.
The contract, he acknowledged, “is only a beginning. It is the preliminary skirmish to the big battles yet to come.”
He predicted: “As the budget battle rages over the coming months, you will hear screams from the special interest groups.”
However, Gingrich said: “We must get our national finances in order. The time has come to balance the federal budget and to free our children from the burdens upon their prosperity and their lives.”
Gingrich closed with a plea that seemed directed not so much at the public as at the news media--a constant foil for him.
“If we had one message for this country on this day when we celebrate the act of keeping our word, it would be a simple message: Idealism is American. To be romantic is American. It’s OK to be a skeptic, but don’t be a cynic. It’s OK to raise good questions, but don’t assume the worst. It’s OK to report difficulties, but it’s equally good to report victories,” he said.
Gingrich’s speech brought to an official close the frenzied 100-day legislative agenda to which nearly all Republican candidates for the House had subscribed last fall.
The Speaker had good reason to feel exuberant. The Republicans more than lived up to their promise, voting on all 10 “common-sense reforms” in the contract. And they did so with a week to spare.
While only one proposal was rejected by the House, two of the GOP bills have been signed into law by Clinton: a bill curtailing “unfunded mandates” imposed on states by the federal government and legislation subjecting Congress to health, safety, labor and civil rights laws that apply to the private sector.
The most crushing defeat for House Republicans came when the Senate, by one vote, killed another top contract priority: a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. But Dole has vowed to bring the measure up for another vote later this year or in 1996.
Other House-passed contract measures, from welfare reform to tax relief, are expected to be substantially rewritten or scaled back by the Republican-controlled Senate, many of whose members have noted pointedly that they did not sign the House contract.
The degree to which the Senate should adhere to the House legislative program was still being debated this week--in both chambers and by members of both parties.
While Republicans rushed one bill after another through the House, Democrats increasingly were counting on the Senate to moderate and slow down the contract. As House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) noted during an interview this week: “The Senate didn’t sign the contract.”
But Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) argued that, in the wake of the string of House successes, there is growing pressure on the Senate to “get with the program.”
“The public sees this as a Republican contract,” Gramm said.