On Capitol Hill, Nit Picking Never Seems To Go Out Of Style

In the November elections, Republicans vowed to cut through red tape and make government run more smoothly. But now that they control Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers are falling into the same trap that snared their Democratic predecessors: a tendency to micromanage decisions made in the White House and the nation's 50 statehouses.

Indeed, House Republicans are second-guessing most White House foreign policy decisions, from where to locate the U.S. embassy in Israel to such constitutional issues as the establishment of a bipartisan board to oversee decisions made by the Defense Secretary. And they're giving the same once-over to President Clinton's domestic agenda.

Much of what the GOP is doing is legitimate oversight. But increasingly, Republicans are guilty of the same nit-picking that infuriated them in the 1980s, when Democrats ran Congress and the GOP held sway in the White House. "In Washington, hypocrisy is a constant phenomenon," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber.

DEEP DENIAL. But the President isn't the only one feeling the tight Republican grip. Although they swept the midterm elections by decrying the "nanny state" and vowing to slash Washington's presence in people's lives, GOP lawmakers are even backing away from their pledge to turn federal programs over to the states without strings attached.

Just look at the crime bill recently passed by House Republicans. Increased state flexibility was a rallying cry for GOP lawmakers in early February when the House reversed a 1994 aid plan requiring local governments to hire more cops. Yet the new bill is even less flexible than the old law when it comes to building prisons: It gives states $10.5 billion--but only if they meet strict federal sentencing requirements.

The party's seeming ambivalence over shifting power to the states reflects a growing chasm between the GOP's libertarian wing and some tradition-bound statists--including some new committee chairmen who have had their first taste of power and now want to keep it. The next test of the GOP's willingness to loosen its grip on central power is welfare reform. Ostensibly, the House GOP plan would turn the program over to states along with some federal funding. But that money comes with tight strings, too. States could not assist legal immigrants or mothers under 18, and recipients would be booted off aid after five years. "When it comes to welfare, House Republicans can't quite let go," says William A. Niskanen, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute.

MANY CHIEFS. The nastiest fights, however, are inside the Beltway over control of foreign policy that's normally the President's domain. During the Reagan years, Republicans howled when Hill Democrats tried to block aid for Nicaraguan rebels. But these days, it's the Republican Congress that's trying to force a Democratic President to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia and limit U.S. participation in U.N. peacekeeping.

Emboldened GOP lawmakers are micromanaging even the tiniest matters. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has vowed to close the Bureau of Labor Statistics if it doesn't change the way it figures inflation. And Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) has demanded income records from such public broadcasting personalities as Garrison Keillor and Mr. Rogers.

As the debate over the Contract With America intensifies, the GOP must also struggle over how much to micromanage. It's one thing for those on the outs to promise to end "business as usual." But now that they wield power, Republicans have to prove they're willing to give some of it up.

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