Photo by Gage Skidmore

A Gingrich Commission to Reorganize Government?

A modest proposal for a new role for the former House speaker.

Former House Speaker and erstwhile presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has ruled out serving in Donald Trump’s cabinet, saying he’ll “be focused on strategic planning.” This week the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page weighed in with a proposal for the kind of planning Gingrich could be involved in: heading an effort to “modernize and shrink the federal government.”

The Journal’s editorial writers made the case for a Gingrich Commission, modeled on the Hoover Commissions of the 1940s and 1950s. Those two panels made hundreds of recommendations for reorganizing federal agencies and overhauling government operations, many of which were — against all odds — actually adopted. (Subsequent commissions and reform efforts have been long on ideas and short on implementation, often because of partisan wrangling.)

On the other hand, the Journal opined, “a Gingrich Commission would have an opening for greater progress with a GOP White House and Congress. There’s always a chance that the effervescent Mr. Gingrich would veer off course by proposing a military base on the moon. But he talks all the time about updating government for the 21st century, and he published a book on “winning the future” that covers everything from education to balancing the budget.”

That book was an update of Gingrich’s highly influential Contract With America, which vaulted Republicans to control of the House in 1994. During that time, Gingrich focused much of his attention on government reform. He pledged that Republicans would eliminate as many as four cabinet departments and “zero out” funding for a series of major programs.

Here’s what I wrote about his efforts in early 1995:

No Speaker of the House has ever shown as keen an interest in the management of the executive branch as Gingrich has. He openly compares himself to Franklin Roosevelt as an experimenter with government and makes it very clear he’d like to usher in what conservative theorist James Pinkerton has called “a post-bureaucratic new New Deal.”

That sounds almost Trumpian. Of course, the Gingrich-led GOP’s attempts at a massive restructuring of the federal apparatus fell well short of their aims. Could this time be different?

Only if the Gingrich Commission were genuinely bipartisan and included input from labor unions representing federal employees, said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who has studied government reform efforts for years. “If it’s Newt Gingrich and a bunch of private business types,” he said, “it ain’t going anywhere.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore