- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

Newt Gingrich is leading a one-person crusade to “transform” the Department of State, much as the Defense Department has been transformed. In a fiery speech in April, he blasted the department and its secretary, Colin Powell, and demanded of President Bush “the equivalent of a Goldwater-Nichols reform bill for the State Department” in part because, according to Mr. Gingrich, “America cannot lead the world with a broken instrument of diplomacy.” He was rebuffed by the White House.

Then, in July, Mr. Gingrich wrote a piece called “Rogue State Department” that continued his attack against Foggy Bottom, though with less vitriol than his speech.

Mr. Gingrich is by any stretch an extraordinary politician. Like Lyndon Johnson and Mike Mansfield, who led the Senate, and current Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Mr. Gingrich is a teacher by training, in this case a professor of history. Arriving in the House in 1979, Mr. Gingrich began his revolution from the backbenches, joining with Democratic senator and one-time presidential aspirant Gary Hart to launch the military-reform movement in Congress. Seven years later, that small start led to the Goldwater-Nichols Act that imposed fundamental change on the Department of Defense.

He rose, despite or because of his seeming radicalism, to the speaker’s job in 1995, launching the Contract for America as the basis for continuing the Republican revolution. Democrats immediately seized on the name labeling it the Contract on America. However, Mr. Gingrich had the Clinton administration on the run until the 1998 congressional elections upset the speaker’s plans and as a result he resigned.

In his new life, Mr. Gingrich is a popular public speaker, media maven, author and adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The interesting question is why Mr. Gingrich has picked on the State Department as his target. If one wants to transform government, it would seem there are bigger targets. Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency were not affected in the recent creation of the Homeland Security Department, and many argue reform is long overdue at both. Surely Treasury, Health and Human Services, Energy and Education are departments that could benefit from Mr. Gingrich’s insights and enormously innovative mind.

Thus, some wonder whether the real target of the former speaker’s affection is the White House. The biggest and most critical fight in Washington is still over the president’s heart and mind and the battle between pragmatism and ideology. Conservatives such as Mr. Gingrich are afraid the president may be wavering in his policies especially in taking a hard line against enemies abroad and bringing the “evil axis” fully to justice. State and its iconic secretary are perhaps seen as obstacles and threats who might actually cause the president’s mind to triumph over his heart, overcoming prior strongly held ideological convictions.

In a brief exchange, retired Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Democrat, engaged the speaker in defense of the State Department.

Mr. Holbrooke, while taking strong exception to Mr. Gingrich’s charges, especially those alleging disloyalty to the president by the foreign service, found common cause with some of Mr. Gingrich’s recommendations regarding increasing State’s budget, numbers of officers serving abroad and enhancing language and regional skills and education. The most telling question Mr. Holbrooke put to Mr. Gingrich was why those increases never happened when the speaker was in power and could have pushed for them.

Meanwhile State soldiers on. But to most Americans, is any of this important? The answer is yes, but for quite different reasons.

Mr. Gingrich ought to be concerned about transforming government. He actually might begin again at the Defense Department, his first target nearly a quarter of a century ago, and see if that department has transformed as much as advertised. No doubt he will get good answers and reference points to apply elsewhere. Elsewhere, however, is not necessarily in the executive branch.

The branch of government that probably needs the greatest transformation is his old home, Congress. In many ways, Congress exists in a time warp. There are still the same old 13 appropriation bills and a matching committee system that have long been obsolete.

Members have little time for reflection. How many have read, for example, the last tax bill before voting on it and more importantly after it was approved and printed? And where is the oversight?

Whether one was for or against the war in Iraq, Congress has been notably missing in action. The United States now has no choice. It must succeed in winning the peace in Iraq. That will require the full support and attention of Congress.

Mr. Gingrich could do a lot worse than to turn his many talents in that direction. Transforming Congress in productive ways with particular focus on Iraq is a noble mission. Let us hope he takes it on.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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