It's crunch time in Washington. Congress is back, but can it perform? Inside-the-beltway pundits wonder if a "train wreck" between Democrats and Republicans over the budget will bring the nation to a financial halt. A far more important question is whether politicians of both stripes realize this may be their last chance to convince the public that the current two-party political system is worth saving at all.
Disenchantment with the November GOP "revolution" already has set in. Congress' approval ratings are way down, even below President Clinton's. In the heartland, people are beginning to ask what's really so different about Washington. Politicians continue to gorge on PAC money, lobbyists write their own legislation, political parties pander to extremists, and parochial legislators favor powerful local groups to get re-elected. General Colin L. Powell's nonpartisan popularity is inversely related to the country's political cynicism.
It's not too late. Start with the budget. The conservative radicals promised to kill entire government programs but then wimped out under pressure. Even after they are trimmed, farmers and ranchers still have their subsidies and the Appalachian Regional Commission still gets to build facilities at ski resorts. Government entitlement programs, like zombies, rise from the dead. There's still time to do the right thing.
Ditto for Medicare. Much of the GOP balanced budget is based on cutbacks in this program. But right now, Republicans are pretending that they can cut $270 billion by giving every senior a choice: fee for service, vouchers, HMOs. Impossible. Instead of taking the hard political decision to shift Medicare recipients into managed-care programs, they are fudging the facts. The whole country is moving toward managed care. Congress should seize the moment and get it done now.
Congress looks better when it comes to tax cuts. The amount of cuts, about $250 billion, is substantial, and a capital-gains tax cut, expanded IRAs, and family tax relief are right on a pro-growth track. But proposing to give a child credit to families with $200,000 in income and penalize the working poor by chopping the Earned Income Tax Credit is simply the crassest kind of class warfare. It should be stopped now in conference.
Then there is regulatory relief. Pruning thickets of business regulation and tort reform to limit corporate liability are vital to the future health of the economy. Yet once again, extremist efforts to eliminate all government health-and-safety and environmental regulations feed public cynicism that politicians don't care for ordinary citizens, just powerful constituencies. Regulatory reform must be accomplished, but thoughtfully. Only anarchists believe in no government.
There is still a chance for the Republican Revolution with a capital "R" to come off. The GOP deserves kudos for moving beyond the rhetoric of change and actually trying to force it through the bureaucratic morass that is Washington.
But the political sleaze factor gripping the government for the past 30 years remains, and the nation's citizenry want an end to it. Fifteen of the top 20 fund-raisers in Congress are freshmen Republicans, gobbling up campaign contributions from vested interests. These same Republicans fought against eliminating federal subsidies and programs to protect their own local interests. It's business as usual for them.
Washington should take note. If it doesn't deliver the goods this time, the system could easily fragment. An independent challenge and third parties have a certain romance, but there's no way that fragmentation will end gridlock. Beware of three parties, or four, or...