In his second inauguration speech, President Clinton backed away rhetorically from the activist big-government themes of his first term. Before Republicans relax over the prospects of a budget deal, however, they should take note of the budget land mines Clinton sowed in the period between his reelection and his inauguration and reconsider their approach to governing, emphasizing oversight of the executive branch instead of a legislative agenda.

The problem for Republicans is that they begin their new congressional term with their legislative program of a balanced budget and capital-gains tax reduction caught between popular new entitlements and an ambitious new foreign policy. In these caring days of post-Reagan contrition, Republicans will find it difficult to oppose Clinton’s $50 billion kiddie-care health entitlement for uninsured children and a $1,500 per-student-college-tuition entitlement. They will also find it hard to oppose the foreign policy of Clinton’s new Secretary of State, Madeline K. Albright. She intends to expand NATO to Russia’s borders and has already obtained Henry Kissinger’s support. Only the U.S. can come up with the $100 billion or more necessary to reequip the former Soviet satellites for participation in NATO and to meet Albright’s goal, recently declared on Meet the Press, of doing “for Central and Eastern Europe what was done for Western Europe after the Second World War.”

OUTFOXED. Republicans have lost this kind of fight before and are no better equipped today to oppose specific programs such as middle-class education and health care for kids on behalf of general economic goals. Moreover, NATO’s eastward expansion will appeal to conservatives who were frustrated by the cold war’s ban on rolling back the Russians. Even Republicans who see this policy as encouraging Russian paranoia with American red ink will not want to risk being hammered as isolationists.

In brief, the Republicans are outfoxed and outmaneuvered before the budget game begins. The combination of new entitlement programs and a costly and dangerous foreign policy will take a toll either on the balanced budget or on the Republicans who oppose the policies.

The best hope for Republicans is to shift the focus away from legislative agendas toward the exercise of Congress’ oversight powers. The FBI has been blatantly politicized in both the Travelgate and Filegate capers, and the Internal Revenue Service has been caught conducting what appear to be harassment audits of organizations on a White House enemies’ list.

Republicans could also make hay with the newly issued performance measures for IRS district directors. According to Appendix F of the 1997 IRS Program Letter, directors will be graded according to the amount of additional taxes and penalties proposed (regardless of their validity) by tax examiners in their districts. Accountants say that this performance measure will encourage examiners to make unreasonable and incorrect demands on taxpayers. Indeed, if this measure sticks, the consequences will be even worse. Examiners opposed to the unfair practice will resign or be forced out for having poor performance ratings. Their replacements will be bullies who enjoy the intimidating power associated with arbitrary demands, and government will come to rest a little more on power and a little less on a rule of law.

CITIZENS OR SUBJECTS? Holding government accountable is a time-honored function of Congress and one that offers Republicans a historic opportunity for political renewal. Republicans can only benefit from emphasizing that whether Americans are to be treated as citizens or subjects is a more important question than balancing the budget.

Moreover, effective oversight would greatly enhance the Republicans’ budget-balancing goal. The way to build public support for spending cuts is to put the spotlight on the Cabinet secretary or program manager who is wasting the taxpayers’ money. Real scrutiny would uncover outrages that would be far more galvanizing than the abstract promise of lower interest rates.

Republicans have permitted their emotional and ideological commitments to make them politically ineffectual. Their support for “law and order,” for example, has allowed the FBI to escape accountability for the political use of its power, just as their desire for a balanced budget makes them patsies for the IRS‘s defense of abusive practices as enforcement measures that raise revenues. As long as their policy goals render them blind to abusive government, Republicans won’t make a difference.