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The `Contract': Day 2

THE Republican ``Contract With America'' was a hit on the campaign trail, but is it good for the country? Americans will know better 99 days from now, when the promise to vote on the Contract's 10 provisions expires. In the interim, we can expect a vigorous, refreshing debate. The Contract calls for much more than the ``reform'' of the federal government undertaken by the Clinton administration; it would methodically deconstruct large chunks of it.

It will not, and should not, be a one-sided debate in favor of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the deconstructors. One need only look to the civil rights movement of the 1960s to find the federal government playing a vital role when state and local governments failed to act responsibly. Where must Washington be involved today?

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As bills come flying out of the energized House, the Senate will do what the Founding Fathers intended: Slow things down and modify the most radical moves. Senate rules, including filibusters, favor compromise and consensus across the political aisle.

Our view, on Day Two of the new Congress, is that the ``Contract With America'' represents a debatable agenda for Congress. Some of its ideas are clear winners, and some could be useful with modifications. Others deserve to fail outright.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act calls for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, a heavy-handed way to impose spending restraints. To consent to budget-cutting by formula would acknowledge an inability to make intelligent political decisions, and would tend to set today's spending patterns in stone.

But nothing else has worked well enough, and the bill does have ``escape clause'' overrides. Congress should pass accompanying legislation outlining how it will achieve a balanced budget in the next several years so that state legislators, who would have to ratify such a measure, can judge the effects.

The presidential line-item veto, also in this bill, could be an aid to fiscal discipline. It is worth trying.

The Taking Back Our Streets Act would undo much of the omnibus crime bill passed last fall, moving away from prevention toward swifter and harsher punishment. This bill is not an improvement as currently drawn; it should not be passed.

The Personal Responsibility Act, otherwise known as welfare reform, would squeeze $40 billion in funding out of welfare over five years. While reform is needed, cutting funds for poor mothers and children to pay for tax cuts (see below) is an offensive concept. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum's alternative, turning welfare over to the states, deserves a careful hearing.

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The Family Reinforcement Act would provide helpful tax incentives to assist in adoptions and the care of elderly family members. It merits passage; but how will the lost revenue be made up?

The American Dream Restoration Act, the GOP tax-cut plan, is one of four being offered, including one from President Clinton. Congress should bring down the budget deficit before it cuts taxes; it should not pass any of the plans.

The National Security Restoration Act puts a correct emphasis on military readiness and modernization. Beefing up the military budget is the high price the GOP pays for its ``go it alone'' world view. US allies should shoulder their share of defense costs. Level funding would be enough to make the Pentagon a winner in future budgets.

The Senior Citizens Fairness Act is a sweet deal for a segment of Americans who wield impressive and growing political clout. Mr. Gingrich is unwilling to reform Social Security, which goes into deficit in the next century. Boomers and ``Xers'' will likely have to settle for much less. Giving today's seniors more is unfair.

The Jobs Creation and Wage Enhancement Act includes a capital-gains tax cut, with a price tag of $56 billion over five years. If the budget can afford it, the bill would provide some economic stimulus. The act also compensates private property owners when the value of their land is diminished by federal regulations. The aim - eliminating unreasonable regulatory burdens on citizens -

is a good one. But this is costly legislation; regulatory reform is a better answer.

The Common Sense Legal Reforms Act includes a ``loser pays'' provision to reduce frivolous lawsuits and puts caps on punitive damages. Abuses of the current system abound, and reform is overdue. Individuals will still be able to take on wealthy opponents, such as corporations, in court.

The Citizen Legislature Act imposes term limits on members of Congress. The recent election showed that sweeping changes of Congress can be made without term limits. And the leveling of the playing field that many seek would best be achieved by campaign-finance reform.

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