Republican Bad News Bears Are On The Prowl

Commentary by Pete du Pont

My grandmother told me that bad news comes in threes. Over a lifetime, I've concluded that she was right. This especially came to mind last week, as I read in the papers three pieces of bad news that could torpedo the Gingrich Republican revolution of 1994.

First item - Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) seems to have slipped a new subsidy for the maritime industry into an appropriations bill. It's only $46 million - what difference can that make to a $1.58 trillion government? But it continues one of those catastrophic subsidy concepts that has so characterized liberal thinking for the last 50 years.

The idea that the government can somehow hold back the tide of competition in international shipping has been liberal dogma for decades. There is the Jones Act, for example, which according to our International Trade Commission, costs the taxpayers $10 billion a year. The Maritime Operating Differential Subsidy, according to the General Accounting Office, costs hundreds of millions more. And all the while America's merchant fleet is dwindling, priced out of the market by the very subsidies that are supposed to be rescuing it.

Even President Clinton once proposed that the subsidies be ended. So did Vice President Gore, in a study that said their elimination could "spur the country's economic growth by $3 billion annually."

Well, they may have been kidding. But we didn't think the conservative Republicans were.

Second, I'm struck by the similarity of another Republican effort - this time led by the senior governor in America, Republican Terry Branstad of Iowa. Using the wiles and power of the Republican constituency of farm belt America, Governor Branstad evidently persuaded the leaders of the smaller government revolution to reinstate a $1.8 billion (over seven years) subsidy to the ethanol industry.

The House Ways and Means Committee had proposed reducing the ethanol tax exemption from 54 cents a gallon to (gasp!) 51 cents. Governor Branstad proclaimed Iowa's future imperiled! The ethanol industry will be destroyed, said the lobbyists.

I saw how smoothly Governor Branstad sweet-talked the Congresspeople, and how quickly they bought the argument that a 6% decrease in a single subsidy could destroy the nation's 28th largest state with a $56 billion economy. Then the alacrity with which the Republican leadership caved on the issue made me wonder whether the Republican Revolution of 1994 could ever succeed.

If America's third party - the Gingrich conservatives elected in the sweep of 1994 - as contrasted with the Senate Republicans and the liberal Democrats - was in favor of this enormous and unnecessary subsidy, who would ever be for eliminating it?

Then, as if to round out my grandmother's truism, there was an article that a group of Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee were turning into marshmallows on the subject of tax cuts. The word is that they want to cut taxes a lot less than $245 billion over seven years because they have lost their nerve about the spending cuts that would be needed to balance the budget. Never mind that the Senate had negotiated the House down from $345 billion in tax cuts and then agreed to the $245 number. These Republican Senators now wanted to renege.

The backsliders - John Chafee of Rhode Island, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Larry Pressler of South Dakota and Alfonse D'Amato of New York - prowled the Senate like Republican bad news bears. They appear to have been seized by Beltway madness, the insidious affliction that has driven federal spending up more than 31% in real terms since 1981. These Senators have evidently decided that it's politically easier for them to let the government keep on spending than it is to let Americans keep their own money. The liberal Democrats seem to have found some unexpected allies.

For the moment, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole seem to have threatened the recalcitrant six into line - a line that will probably hold through Senate Finance Committee votes. But many opportunities to undermine the tax cuts of 1995 remain - in floor amendments, the conference with the House, and final passage under threat of a Clinton veto.

I should be optimistic, but I can't shake my grandmother's wisdom: bad things do come in threes. First, more maritime subsidies. Then more ethanol subsidies. And, finally, the same old "keep on spending, business as usual" syndrome. And all approved by the very conservatives we put into power to clean up the mess.

If, as some polls suggest, the new Congress is slipping from favor with the general public, could it be because the general public sees too much of the old business as usual in the Capitol?