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Jewish World ReviewNov. 29, 2000 / 2 Kislev, 5761

James Freeman

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A clear election winner: Hastert --
AL GORE'S lawyers may yet defeat George W. Bush in the presidential election, but down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House there's at least one clear winner. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is back for another term, surprising pundits who figured that he was just keeping the seat warm when he took over two years ago.

In an interview last week in his Capitol Hill office, Hastert reflected on the events of 1998. In quick succession, Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston self-destructed, leaving the former high school teacher and wrestling coach as the new speaker. Says Hastert: "Those were kind of troubled times for us. We'd been through two speakers in a short period of time; impeachment was going on; we were bombing somebody over in the Middle East as kind of a diversionary tactic. And when I first became speaker, people were measuring the drapes — they thought this was going to be a temporary deal."

So now that voters have returned Republicans to control of the House, what is Hastert planning to do next year? Obviously a lot depends on who's president. If it's Bush, "we can play a role in helping him get his agenda done." Even if Gore becomes president, Hastert says, "we think that there's got to be common-sense tax relief." Hastert also expects the House to pass a patient's bill of rights but without giving lawyers new ways to feed on businesses that choose to cover their employees.

As for the speaker's overall strategy, it hasn't changed: Keep paying down the debt, cut taxes whenever possible and keep Alan Greenspan alive forever. OK, maybe not forever, but the self-effacing Hastert makes it clear that the Federal Reserve chairman's success in keeping interest rates low was critical to the great boom of the 1990s. And because all estimates for the coveted surplus are based on steady economic growth for the next decade, the Fed has to keep rates low for Hastert to be able to continue cutting that federal debt. Personally, I believe that in the last year Greenspan and the Fed have pushed rates too high, and I'd favor tax cuts and growth over debt reduction, but you can't argue with the economy of the 1990s.

Hastert recalls his first meeting as speaker with Alan Greenspan. Says Hastert: "Of course I was virtually unknown. I'd been kind of a backbencher for a long time. So he comes in and I said, 'Well, Mr. Greenspan, I really appreciate you coming by. I taught high school economics for 16 years, certainly nothing close to what you've achieved, but I pride myself on economics. And what we're going to try to do here in the next two years is to balance the budget, pay down the debt and give people a little bit of tax relief."

Replied Greenspan: "You know, you probably had a much easier time teaching economic principles to 16-year-olds than trying to teach them to some members of Congress." Hastert had to agree, but he's made some progress. The government still spends a ridiculous amount of our money, but the House has delivered some modest tax cuts in recent years, and you can expect that trend to continue next year. At the end of the day, the "caretaker speaker" might prove to be a more successful politician than Newt Gingrich.

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