A New Agenda for a New Speaker

Can you hear them? The groans rising up from all over Washington, D.C., especially from liberals and the media?

That's because conventional wisdom has it that former Speaker of the House-apparent Bob Livingston (R-La.) was a pragmatic deal-maker who would work with Democrats to ensure a lot of successful legislation over the next two years. But current Speaker-apparent Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was a Newt Gingrich ally who won't be as likely to cut a deal that would please Democrats. Thus, the reasoning goes, the 106th Congress will get little done except harangue President Bill Clinton.

However, like most times, the conventional wisdom will probably be wrong, especially if future Speaker Hastert takes the lead on putting forth a legislative agenda that will draw the support of the large majority of the American people. And there is a good chance, given the fact that Bill Clinton would like to give future generations a lot more to remember him by than Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment, that the president will work with Hastert in order to get some bills he can sign.

So what issues should Hastert be looking at? There are at least five.

Social Security. President Clinton's monotonous call for saving Social Security without ever putting up a plan of his own has managed to gain him the support of many Americans who are concerned about Social Security's future without alienating people with the details of his own plan. Call it "evasive leadership."

Republicans, by contrast, are generally agreed on the basic principles of reform (see "A 12-Step Plan for Social Security Reform" at www.ncpa.org). Most want workers to be able to set money aside in "personal security accounts" that belong to the individual. And a number of Republicans and even some Democrats have introduced legislation that would do just that.

Would the president sign such legislation were it to pass Congress? Maybe. He has made some rumblings in that regard. And if he wants to create a legacy that will stand high above his "inappropriate relationship," he will have to do something bold and you don't get much bolder in American politics than taking on Social Security.

Education. President Clinton also took the lead on education reform in this past session of Congress, mostly by calling for 100,000 new teachers.

Republicans opposed the Clinton education agenda at first, wanting more parental choice in education by providing children with school vouchers and education savings accounts.

During the budget crunch this fall, however, Republicans basically adopted the president's agenda, and even claimed credit for it.

What is needed is a bolder and more comprehensive agenda, one that increases choice, and therefore competition, but also removes federal regulations and restrictions on public education. Returning power to parents and to local school districts is a bold agenda that could even draw support from the teachers' unions.

Taxes. Fundamental tax reform that creates a simpler and fairer tax system for every American took a back seat in 1998 to discussions about incremental tax cuts. However, it's hard to get voters really excited about small, incremental cuts, and so Congress didn't do anything, and Republicans suffered at the polls because of it.

It is time to get the tax reform agenda back on the front burner. The American people get very excited about making the tax system fairer and simpler. If only Hastert can get the Republicans excited again, we all may have something to brag about at the end of the year.

Health Insurance. Year after year the Democrats hammer Republicans with health insurance reform, and it's coming again this year as both parties look at legislation that would put a number of restrictions on managed care. It's time Republicans took the lead on this issue by promoting reforms that would encourage personal and portable health insurance. What's that, you ask? You own your auto insurance policy and your life insurance policy (personal) and you don't lose them when you change jobs (portable). And those insurance markets work well. Why can't we do the same with health insurance?

We can, but it will take a few changes in the tax law. The party that actually fixes the market for health insurance rather than just trying to restrict it will find widespread public gratitude.

Pensions. And speaking of "personal and portable," we need to do that for the pension system also. We live in a time with a very mobile workforce where people often hold two or more jobs, and more and more are self-employed. We need a pension system that reflects that evolving workforce.

The 106th Congress doesn't have to be a lame-duck session. It can pass a lot of needed legislation. But it needs to be good legislation that liberates and empowers Americans to rise to the challenge of a changing economy.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.