What was well worth celebrating in Speaker Newt Gingrich's First Hundred Days was the return of leadership, discipline and purpose to the House of Representatives. Like its Senate counterpart, the House had been throttled for years by well-meaning but failed reforms of a generation ago. Its mechanisms for controlling the budget were a bust. Its penchant for creating more and more federal benefits, regulations and mandates reflected the zeal of staff and committee aides imposing their agendas on overwhelmed legislators. A succession of speakers deferred to arbitrary, turf-minded committee chairmen whose competing interests contributed to paralysis and gridlock.
In the Second Hundred Days, the Senate will not give up its role as a more deliberative body than the House. Nor should it. President Clinton will not cede his prerogatives to Congress. Nor should he. Self-corrective forces in check-and-balance government will shrink the Gingrich program.
Yet this does not imply that Mr. Gingrich will fail in his promise Friday night to "totally remake the federal government, to change the very way it thinks, the way it does business, the way it treats its citizens." On the contrary, the speaker's personal force and creativity have shifted policy-making in his direction. Both the Senate and the White House find themselves reacting to his agenda.
In the House itself, Republicans may soon look back on the First Hundred Days with nostalgia. For this was their high watermark. The measures that swept to passage were essentially cost free. What transpired was the easy part. Everything Mr. Gingrich wanted he got, with the exception of term-limits that transgressed the self-interests of senior members. What lies ahead is the far more painful business of proposing huge cuts in federal spending to pay for the GOP's oversized tax cut proposals and its pledge to balance the budget by 2002.
President Clinton, smarting at criticism that he has been too passive, drew veto lines in the sand Friday. He said he would reject House GOP proposals to freeze government regulations, make the loser pay in tort suits, repeal last year's ban on assault weapons and limit U.S. participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
But the president made it clear that he, too, wants to re-engineer government. "We both want tax cuts, less intrusive government, the line-item veto, the toughest possible fight against crime," he said Friday. And yesterday, in a TV interview, the speaker responded by saying that Mr. Clinton is "without question," more in touch with the American people than are congressional Democrats.
Actually, these leaders share one unspoken political objective: If Mr. Clinton is re-elected next year, Mr. Gingrich will remain the nation's No. 1 Republican. Not so if a Republican is president. They will have their fights in the next Hundred Days and the Hundred Days after that. But neither would be helped if the intellectual tumult transforming Washington comes to come to nothing.