Good suits and good haircuts filled the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Wednesday to hear House Speaker Newt Gingrich explain once again how the poor and distressed of this great land are oppressing the wealthy and powerful.

Gingrich's target was the Social Security program for disabled children, which, he alleged, was encouraging child abuse. It is a favorite right-wing fairy tale -- how well-intentioned government programs inevitably worsen the problem they seek to cure.

In the case of the disability payments, Gingrich said, parents were beating their children for scoring too well on psychology tests and thereby failing to qualify for more than $400 a month in disability checks.

"They're being punished for not getting what they call crazy money or stupid money," Gingrich said. "We are literally having children suffering child abuse so they can get a check for their parents."

Did it really happen? Sure. In this country, anything can happen. Is it widespread? No, says Eileen Sweeney of the Children's Defense Fund. "It's unacceptable if it occurs, but it's really a very marginal problem. And Gingrich is using it to destroy the entire program. There is a child-abuse system to deal with these aberrations -- but Gingrich wants to devastate that too."

Gingrich also warned that organized crime was ripping off the food stamp program. His colleague, Majority Whip John Boehner (R-Ohio), then denounced the federal summer jobs program, which the Republicans are trying to kill, because "it doesn't work." Boehner also complained about the Agriculture Department's "fat police," who try to ensure that school lunches are nutritious. The ever-ludicrous House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) chimed in that he particularly resented "deadbeat dads that end up giving all other fathers a bad name."

What was it that Gingrich wanted to revive last week -- a Victorian sense of shame? Start with Armey; when it comes to shamelessness, he has no peer.

A simple comparison: Assume that the entire U.S. state and federal welfare program -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- is fraudulent and that all welfare recipients are job-shirking cheats. Assume further that the entire food stamp program is also fraudulent and that no person in this country needs help to buy food. Assume still further that the entire Supplemental Security Income program is fraudulent and that there are no retarded and disabled children, no impoverished nuns, no Russian refugees struggling to make a new life.

Assume all three programs to be wholly fraudulent (and they are not). Still, the entire amount of this imaginary fraud -- about $90 billion -- by these imaginary malefactors, cheats and malingerers is less than one year's actual fraud in health care.

Sen. Bill Cohen (R-Maine) brought this point home at a hearing Tuesday. Health care fraud totaled an estimated $100 billion last year, and $418 billion over the past five -- four times the total cost of the savings and loan fiasco.

Cohen heard testimony from FBI Director Louis Freeh about the latest craze in crooked psychiatric hospitals, "wave therapy." The doctor waves at patients as he walks by and then bills the government $125 for individual therapy.

He heard of Florida health maintenance organizations that are paid by the state to sign up homeless and indigent patients. They do -- but never tell the "patients" how to obtain care when they are sick; the patients end up going to hospital emergency rooms, as always. He heard of plush diet resorts that charge treatments to insurers as "psychological therapy." He heard of phony blood labs that pay patients $10 for a pint of blood and a Medicaid number -- and then bill the government for millions in fake blood tests.

Freeh testified that cocaine distributors are switching from drug dealing to health care fraud because it is so much safer and more profitable. Health care fraud has lured criminal gangs to America from all over the world -- including the Russian Mafia.

"I wouldn't want to give the impression that it's only Russians," Cohen joined in. "Every ethnic group is involved -- Asian, Caribbean, Chinese, Hispanic."

Freeh, ever the pure New Yorker, gave Cohen a Bogartian, deadpan look. "The combination of our own lawyers, doctors and insurers is even more formidable than some of those criminal groups," he said dryly.

This is where the money is: $100 billion a year, enough to pay for health coverage for everyone -- and stolen by some of the most sophisticated thieves the world has ever seen. If Congress really wants to go after fraud, waste and abuse, Cohen is showing the way. Gingrich, for some reason, is in hot pursuit of crooked children. (C) 1995, Newsday Inc.