Republican radicals may find hands tied

Newt Gingrich takes over tomorrow as Speaker of the first Republican Congress in 41 years with Washington still wondering how seriously to take the results of the Democratic Party's election rout in November.

Mr Gingrich promises to renew American civilisation, but the weeks since his victory have been notable for radical rhetoric and theatre rather than a coherent political programme.

Changes contemplated by the Republicans include selling off the US Geological Survey - though they hurriedly add that earthquake prediction would remain under government control. Mr Gingrich caused a furore by recommending the virtues of orphanages and even appeared on television with a Danish heart-pump, cheaper than the American one, claiming that its adoption would cut medical costs.

Having underestimated the Republicans before the election, American pundits may now be taking them too literally. There are serious aspects to their "Contract with America" - notably the 50 per cent cut in capital gains tax - but the 10-point agenda was issued on 27 September as a handy package of policies that Mr Gingrich believed would win votes and alienate nobody. It makes no mention of issues on which the Republicans are divided, such as abortion.

The difficulty for Mr Gingrich is the same as that facing any radical in Washington. The division of powers between Congress, the President and the judiciary makes it almost impossible to carry out a full programme. Government institutions in Washington have proved adept at protecting themselves. An issue such as crime - the "contract" has a Taking Back Our Streets Act - is primarily handled by the states, not federal government.

The second limitation on change is that the Republicans have promised not to cut social security or Medicare for the elderly - and have also said they will increase spending on defence. Together with the interest on the national debt, this puts three-quarters of federal spending off limits, while the welfare programme, which Mr Gingrich has talked so much about limiting, makes up just 1 per cent of the budget.

The party's balanced-budget amendment would become law only if passed by two-thirds of state legislatures, many of which fear they will be lumbered with paying for what Washington now funds.

The Republicans know they have promised far more than is feasible to deliver. They also know the dangers - exemplified by President Bill Clinton in the past two years - of disappointing voters by delivering nothing. They need to act quickly in areas where they do have authority by passing into law popular measures such as applying federal laws to Congress itself. Mr Gingrich could also look non-partisan by giving Mr Clinton a line-item veto, stopping members of Congress adding their pet schemes to important legislation which cannot be removed without dumping the whole law.

Much will depend on how Mr Clinton responds to all this. The White House strategy is to give the Republicans enough rope in the hope they will hang themselves. Given the completeness of the Democrats' defeat on 8 November, Mr Clinton does not want to look as if he is frustrating the people's will. More hopefully, from his point of view, Mr Gingrich has shown in the past month - on orphanages and a $4.5m (£2.8m) book deal - that he has flashes of very poor political judgement. As the gloss of his electoral victory wears thin, American voters may not be so willing to let him talk himself out of trouble.

Mr Clinton will also hope that the Republican leaders will fall out among themselves as they vie for the 1996 presidential nomination.

Last week Senator Bob Dole did little to mute his criticism of Mr Gingrich over his agreement to write the book.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea