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`CONTRACT WITH AMERICA' RATES YAWNS, NOT CHEERS

Up to a point, Speaker Newt Gingrich has a right to brag about House action on the GOP's "Contract With America" when he addresses the nation by television Friday night.

Even so, the lawmakers' performance regarding this over-rated political gimmick still deserves to be greeted with more yawns than cheers.The best that can be said for the "contract" is that it generated enormous publicity, played a major role in getting House Republicans organized and provided a road map for the GOP on how to use its newfound power after having been in the minority for more than 40 years.

Gingrich certainly showed he knows how to run a legislative railroad on schedule. Not only did the House bring all 11 campaign pledges in the "contract" to a floor vote, it did so with six days left in the 100-day deadline the GOP had set.

Moreover, the Republican majority persuaded an average of 83 Democrats - more than 40 per cent of the Democratic contingent in the House - to go along with them on the various votes.

But that just about exhausts the legitimate praise.

Though the public is enthusiastic about various individual items in the "contract," polls show most Americans were either indifferent to or unaware of the overall document.

The "contract" promised only a House vote, not passage, and is not binding on the Senate. Even though the Senate also is dominated by Republicans, this upper chamber is expected to ignore or substantially alter most of the legislation passed by the House.

Polls also show the public strongly prefers deficit reduction and a balanced budget to tax reduction, a major part of the "contract" that was approved by the House.

The balanced-budget amendment, however, was rejected by the Senate while the House narrowly but wisely foiled term limits for members of Congress.

Even if the Senate goes along with the House-passed tax bill, the cuts now contemplated would not take effect unless Congress and the president adopt a 1996 budget projecting a deficit of zero by the year 2002. Don't expect a public tired of tax-and-spend Democrats to feel elated about cut-and-borrow Republicans.

Nor is it clear that the Republican majorities in the House and Senate can muster enough votes to override any parts of the "contract" vetoed by President Clinton.

The bottom line is that when it comes to making laws, all that counts is the final product's quality - not quantity or speed.

One other point: By fueling a growing anti-government sentiment across the country, the "contract" has strengthened a much too sweeping and indiscriminate movement that could boomerang against the Republicans now that they control the law-making machinery.

In any event, the verdict that counts is the one from the public. The ultimate judgment on the "Contract With America" won't be rendered until the voters go to the polls in the 1996 elections.