Gingrich reads first lesson from the Newt Testament

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HE COMMANDS more headlines than the President and a larger book advance. Measured by the attention accorded his every pronoucement, he could BE the President.

But now Newt Gingrich must deliver. Shortly after noon on Wednesday, when the 104th United States Congress convenes, he will be sworn in as the first Republican Speaker of the House in 40 years. In his pocket, as always, will be a laminated copy of the hottest political document in America.

Like the biblical commandments, there are 10 points in Gingrich's "Contract with America". As a paper manifesto, it helped give Republicans their mid-term election landslide in November. Engraving it in stone as the law of the land will be quite another matter.

Love it or hate it, there will be no escaping the Contract. Gingrich's Republican cohorts, fresh from practice sessions to drill into them the unaccustomed routines of a majority, are the masters now. Every morning for the first 100 days of the new Congress, the new Speaker insists, his catechism will be read out as the first order of business.

Within those 100 days, he promises, every one of the 10 items - adorned with such elector-friendly titles as the "Fiscal Responsibility Act", the "Personal Responsibility Act" and the "American Dream Restoration Act" - will be put to a vote.

But the real action will start even earlier. In truth there are not one but two contracts. One is the Republican prescription for the country. The other is a rather more attainable prescription for Congress itself. This will be enacted at once, as a string of resolutions which will be voted upon immediately after Gingrich takes the chair.

"The Longest Day" is how Dick Armey, Republican majority leader, describes a session that may not end until the small hours of Thursday.

On Day One of the Creation, the Republicans will already have made a down-payment on their pledge to end "business as usual" in Washington. No longer will the House be exempt from the laws it imposes on the rest of America. Three committees will be abolished, committee staffers will be cut by a third, and the powers of their chairmen will be curtailed by measures including term limits and an end to proxy voting in committee.

Glasnost too is on the way, with resolutions to make all committee proceedings public and to appoint outside auditors to root out waste and fraud on Capitol Hill. For these steps no approval by the Senate is required and no presidential veto can spoil the fun. House Republicans are united, and Newt's word is their law.

For the Contract proper, it is a very different story. The document is a mix of fiscal, social, defence and constitutional measures, all in pursuit of the Republican goals of less taxes, smaller government and "empowered" individual citizens.

Of these 10 points, only the "Family Re-inforcement Act", designed to improve the lot of children, has a clear run. A middle-class tax cut - the American Dream Restoration Act - will be enacted, but probably not without much jockeying between Congress and the White House.

The same goes for welfare reform, any new anti-crime legislation and tax breaks for the elderly. But President Bill Clinton will block constraints on American involvement in UN operations. He will fight cuts in the capital gains tax and veto legal changes restraining the individual's freedom to sue, if they tilt too far in favour of big business and the wealthy.

Even if they are passed, these measures hardly add up to a Republican revolution, notwithstanding the rumpus over orphanages and school prayer - both essentially random thoughts of Chairman Newt, not articles of the Contract. The changes that really matter are the proposed amendments to the Constitution, introducing term limits and requiring the federal government to present a balanced budget.

Of the two, term limits (restricting congressmen and senators to a maximum of 12 years in office, according to the most common formula) have receded in importance. November's ballot-box slaughter of the Democrats has merely proved the obvious: that if voters feel a congressman has been around too long, they have the opportunity to kick him out every other year - just ask ex-Speaker Tom Foley.

What is more, hypocrisy abounds. Term limits may be a smash on the radio talk-show circuit. But senior members of both parties who would be directly affected oppose them, as do the young and ambitious.

But as an exercise in hypocrisy, buck-passing and woolly thinking, term limits pale beside the balanced budget amendment. Make no mistake: the Republicans are in earnest. House hearings are scheduled for Thursday, Day Two of the Creation. Both Senate andHouse can probably produce the two-thirds majority needed for changes in the Constitution, which do not have to be approved by the President. In any case, Mr Clinton supports part of the plan, a "line-item veto", entitling him to excise individual spending items or tax breaks from a finance bill, without vetoing it in its entirety. But what if the balanced budget measure is passed, and then wins the required approval of 38 of the 50 states?

The question exposes the hollow centre of the Gingrich-Clinton bidding war on tax-cuts: how do you pay for them and still eliminate the federal deficit ($167bn in fiscal 1995 but set to rise sharply thereafter)?

Both politicians and ordinary Americans are engaged in wilful self-denial. Anyone listening to Gingrich, his Republican lieutenants or the talk-show brotherhood could be forgiven for thinking that if welfare to the "undeserving" US poor and aid to the "undeserving" foreign poor were stopped, the deficit would vanish. A Harvard Institute poll found nearly half the population believes welfare or aid are the largest items in the federal budget. In truth, they jointly account for a mere $60bn of total spending of $1,500bn. A balanced budget requires either swingeing tax increases or cuts in defence and core white middle-class entitlement programmes such as Social Security and Medicare. As the November campaign proved, all are sacrosanct.

Talk of "downsizing" government is also beside the point, especially if "downsizing" simply means transferring responsibility to the states without providing the money to do so. Devolution is a favourite Republican theme. All too easily, however, it could just drive a wedge between pragmatic Republican governors and an ideologically driven Republican Congress, and see higher state taxes wiping out any middle-class tax cut decided in Washington. Naturally, such niceties are sidestepped by the Contract, w hich relies on the Reaganomics principle that tax cuts will stimulate the economy, which will produce higher tax revenues and thus reduce the deficit.

In the first heady weeks of the Gingrich era - this "unique moment in history" as Newt himself modestly said in explanation of his decision to forego $4.5m of Murdoch gold for a book advance - none of the above may matter. But power is a dangerous commodity on Capitol Hill. The Democrats had it, were judged to have misused it, and were massacred.

The "Contract with America" is a Republican hostage to fortune. Twice since the war, the Republicans have taken over Congress, only to be rapidly ousted. If the Contract bombs, Chairman Newt's triumph of 1994 could turn to tears in 1996.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS A constitutionally enforced, balanced US budget A crime bill, with stiff sentences and more prisons Cuts in welfare, especially for unmarried mothers Measures to help children and strengthen the family A middle-class tax cut Higher defence spending; no UN control of US troops Tax and social security assistance for the elderly Cuts in the capital gains tax Legal reforms to curb litigation and cut malpractice suits Term limits for House and Senate members