Commentary: The Gop Is Choosing Symbols Over Substance

Congressional Republicans like to lecture welfare mothers, bureaucrats, and Chinese Communists about irresponsible behavior. But they aren't setting a very good example these days.

Midway through the year, lawmakers still haven't agreed on a 1999 budget blueprint, due by law two months ago. The Senate has deep-sixed campaign-finance reform and a comprehensive tobacco bill. The House is trying to hold an $18 billion International Monetary Fund assistance package and U.N. dues hostage to the demands of antiabortion forces.

Amid the wreckage, Republicans point to one proud accomplishment: On June 18, the House voted to abolish the tax code. It's a safe vote because the Senate and Clinton will never go along. It's also meaningless, since the legislation would wipe out the code in 2002 only if Congress and the President have adopted an alternative. Well, if the two branches could agree on a new system, the old tax code would be history anyway.

What's going on here? Led by House firebrands, Hill Republicans are again playing to their conservative core, from tax-hating supply-siders to Religious Right activists, to ensure a strong turnout in fall elections. The result: a spate of partisan votes meant to embarrass Democrats. Among them: a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, restoration of organized prayer in public schools, and tax breaks for private- and religious-school students.

Conservative activists, who earlier this year threatened to sit out the election, are thrilled. "It's a signal to the shock troops that the Republican Party has a tremendous record to run on," says GOP strategist Keith Appell. And GOP pollsters are telling their elected officials that the selected issues are a hit with most voters. Crows House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), "I have no doubt that we are applauded in America."

But these tactics are alarming some GOP centrists. Veteran moderates such as Representative Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) worry that the GOP has been hijacked by the far right again. "It's symbolic show business," she complains. "As the majority party, it is our moral responsibility to find ways to deal with real issues. How can we remain a majority party if we don't seek consensus?"

Roukema has put her finger on the potentially fatal flaw in the Republican strategy. Symbolic votes may make good 30-second attack ads, but they won't improve schools or fix managed care or ease global economic crises.

BRINKMANSHIP. Still, Republican strategists insist that the symbolic votes reflect a commitment to principle. But if the party truly wanted to enact antiabortion legislation, for instance, it would call Clinton's bluff and compromise on a late-term ban that would allow the procedure if a mother's health were threatened. But the GOP prefers a campaign issue to a policy win.

That kind of partisan brinkmanship is a throwback to the GOP's 40 years in the House minority. As the majority party, the GOP is expected to legislate, not posture. If Republicans keep acting like they're still in the minority, come November voters may decide that's just where they belong.

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