Try, if you can, to screen out the memories. Forget the cover stories, the "Angriest Man in America" profiles, the revolutionary rhetoric, the million-dollar book contracts. Whether you loved him or hated him, forget how he infuriated you. Look at him now as neutrally as you can and I think you'll come to the obvious conclusion: Seen from the perspective of the 108th Congress, which is stumbling to the end of its ignominious session this week, Newt Gingrich is a towering historical figure.
By that I don't mean Gingrich was a paragon of virtue, or that Gingrich was a great unifier of men. I mean that Newt Gingrich, as speaker of the House, tried to do what no one has done before or since. Ten years ago this autumn he set out, quixotically, to control Congress's apparently insatiable urge to spend the nation's money. He tried to limit the terms of the all-powerful committee chairmen, who had so skewed the appropriations process to the advantage of their constituents. He assailed what he called the "East German socialist" farm subsidy programs that had gone unchallenged for a half-century. He even managed to pass a line-item veto, which would have allowed then-President Bill Clinton to cut pork from the then-Republican Congress's legislation, had it not been declared unconstitutional.
Never mind his methods or his style: At least he made an effort, which is more than can be said of anyone in the current congressional leadership. Back in the last decade, Gingrich's rants against the Democratic congressional establishment and its penchant for spending were perceived as partisan Republican attacks. But nowadays, the Republicans themselves -- in control of the House, the Senate and the White House -- bear the greatest responsibility for the apparently unstoppable expansion of government.
Just look at the numbers. According to the president's fiscal 2005 budget, discretionary federal spending -- meaning money nobody is being legally forced to spend -- has risen 29 percent over the past four years and is growing even faster than spending on Medicare and Social Security. According to a Cato Institute study, the increases for 2002, 2003 and 2004 constitute three of the five biggest annual increases in the past 40 years. Contrary to popular belief, not all the money has been spent on the military: Spending on everything besides defense will increase by more than a third during President Bush's first term. Nor is it all going to homeland security. The Education Department, once slated for abolition, has experienced a huge spending boost. So has the Energy Department, whose creation was once greeted with skepticism. In fact, many of the programs that Republicans promised to eliminate in the mid-1990s -- the dubious public-private partnerships, the extraneous commissions, the grants for pet causes -- now have larger budgets than ever.
Judging from the record of this Congress, whose members are right now leaving Washington to ask us to reelect them, the growth isn't going to stop, either. Partly this is because no one particularly cares. Partly it is because members will no longer allow any measure to become law unless they are bribed with billions of dollars of pork for their districts. The energy bill that nearly passed last fall would have contained some $23.5 billion in tax breaks for the oil and gas industries -- three times what the president asked for -- not to mention more billions for ethanol (on behalf of farm-state legislators) and coal producers (on behalf of coal-state legislators). The Medicare bill -- even leaving aside what could be trillions of dollars for prescription drugs over the next decade -- contained some $25 billion for rural doctors, on behalf of congressmen from rural states. A $5 billion corporate tax bill emerges with $150 billion in extras attached to it. A highway bill turns out to fund parking lots and museums, and costs billions more than it should.
Yet, while there is campaign talk about tax cuts and the resultant deficit, mostly from Democrats, I hardly hear anyone from either party crusading against the government spending that is equally responsible for the deficit and that will, if unchecked, force taxes up again anyway. With a few oddball exceptions, no one talks about what happens to the national economy when more activity is controlled by the government.
It's as if campaigning against big government has become passé: It's so old, so dull, so 1990s. It's impossible to believe that Gingrich ever tried it, impossible to believe anyone ever will again. You'd have to be an anti-establishment nut even to want to reform a system that keeps everyone comfortable. Indeed, you'd probably have to be a provincial history teacher with a love of spy novels and futurology, a gift for causing offense and a fondness for the word "radical" even to think of it at all.