NEWT GINGRICH has never met a microphone he didn't like. But suddenly he's turned quiet. The speaker and his Republican allies are trying to push through major changes in the way the federal government operates, but they really don't want you -- the voting and reading public -- to know what's going on. Call it the Stealth Revolution.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, one of Newt's top lieutenants, is frank about the strategy. "The legislative process designed by the founders is so cumbersome that almost nothing happens," he complains. So GOP leaders have come up with a backdoor way of avoiding that process, and the public scrutiny that goes with it.
Every year, Congress approves 13 appropriations bills that allocate funds to run the government. Unlike other bills, they have to pass or the checks start to bounce. So Mr. Gingrich & Co. are loading them up with riders -- dozens of them -- that gut laws, alter regulations and eviscerate programs. All without much deliberation or debate.
The appropriations bills, says Mr. Boehner without apology, are "the fastest train to our destination." But Rep. Vic Fazio, a senior Democrat from California, puts it another way: "They're not just making the trains run on time. They don't want us to see what's in the boxcars."
To be sure, when Democrats controlled Congress they used these spending bills to fork over hefty portions of pork. One joke had it that the Mississippi district of Jamie Whitten, longtime chairman of the appropriations committee, had been completely paved over with federal highway funds. And one congressional aide recalls with glee how the Democrats "jerked around" the Bush White House by cutting funds for the Competitiveness Council, a favorite project headed by Vice President Dan Quayle.
But this year the Republicans are abusing the appropriations process in new and creative ways. And if you look inside the boxcars, one thing is immediately clear: The GOP has created its own form of pork, a series of measures that play up to their business supporters and campaign contributors.
Take the Environmental Protection Agency. The House-passed bill would slash enforcement funds by one-third, leaving the agency virtually powerless to do many things -- from protecting wetlands to regulating oil refinery discharges -- that cost business money. Of course, environmentalism can go to extremes, and has to be balanced against economic interests. But American industry has proven that it will not clean up its act without the pressure of government regulation.
Another prime target of the Stealth Revolution is OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In a remarkable interview with the Washington Post, Rep. Cass Ballenger of North Carolina boasted that he had raised $65,000 in the last election cycle from small businessmen on the promise that he would cripple OSHA. And he's making good on that promise.
Now admittedly, OSHA like EPA can be a royal pain, even for law-abiding businesses. But the answer is more common-sense regulations, not a commando raid on the whole concept of workplace safety.
Business is not the only beneficiary of the Stealth Revolution. Another key link in the GOP coalition, the religious right, is getting paid off as well. Access to abortion is shrinking for female soldiers, federal workers, even prisoners -- anyone with publicly subsidized health care. One amendment would allow states to bar Medicaid abortions for victims of rape and incest. Another eliminates all $193 million allocated for family planning services. In addition, money is drying up for the National Endowment for the Arts, long attacked by conservative Christians as a promoter of pornography and a foe of family values.
Republicans run some risks here. The public might say they hate the government, but they still depend on it to protect them from dirty water, unsafe meat and dangerous working conditions. And a lot of moderates get nervous when the government starts limiting their freedom of expression -- in sex as well as in art. The GOP wants it both ways: to please the Chamber of Commerce and the Christian Coalition, but not to alarm the general public.
That's why Bill Clinton's veto threats are a valuable caution light. At least he'll slow the process down, force a broader debate. Once the public knows what's in those boxcars, they can decide for themselves to let the train go through. Or stop it in its tracks.
Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.