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THE TAX CUTS MAY BE IN PERIL, the line-item veto languishing, welfare reform at a stalemate, and the unzeroed-out National Endowment for the Arts busily preparing for its next foray into the bowels of our culture. But say this for the 104th Congress: You can drive faster.

More precisely, Washington decided to butt out of the business of setting speed limits on the nation’s highways. They’re gunning their engines outside of Butte, Montana, just like in the good old days before Arab oil embargoes, disco, national malaise, and the other political and cultural catastrophes of the 1970s. There is not much of anything in Montana — even Montanans concede this — and what’s there is far from everything else. Now another thing that isn’t there is a speed limit, at least not during the day.


When the federal law cranking down speeds to 55 miles an hour took effect in 1974, Montana and eight other states — in that chest-puffing style that has become the signature of local officials denouncing the meddle, ;ome federal govuhment — adopted provisions that would cause their old limits to be restored once Washington saw reason or cried “Uncle.” Barring a change of heart in the state capitals, that means you can now, or soon will be able to, go 75 in Wyoming, Nevada, and Kansas and 70 in South Dakota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and California. The Big Sky’s the limit in Montana. Other states, though not all, will soon surely follow suit and raise their limits.

Our long national nightmare is over, in other words. No longer that feeling of suspended animation upon slowing down to 55, haing spotted a cop.

There is other good news in the legislation, whose main purpose was to desigrate a National Highway System, which in turn freed about $ 5 billion for highway construction that had been held up since Oct. 1, the deadline Congress gave itselfa couple years ago for completing the system. States no longer face penalties if they fail to require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. States no longer have to recycle rubber from old tires into the mix used for highways, a ridiculous piece of pork-barrelage passed to satisfy a well-connected recycler in Connecticut. Best of all, it is no longer mandatory to designate distances on highway signs in kilometers as well as miles. Give the Republican Revolution another couple of years, and the scourge of the metric system might actually be banished forever.

The states’ rights rhetoric that accompanied the repeal of the speed limit would warm the cockles of the conservative Republican heart. If you oppose doing away with the national limit, thundered proponents, you are saying that state legislatures and departments of transportation are too stupid to do the right thing for their people.

In the end, the House voted 313-112 to get rid of the national speed limit. The total included 93 t, ll4 Democrats, almost half the party’s number in the House. Fifteen Democrats joined 50 Republicans to ensure its acceptance by the Senate.

Best of all, perhaps, from the 1 GOP revolutionary’s point of view, the hated Clinton administration had long professed its opposition to the measure. Mike McCurry, the president’s spokesman, had said that if the president enjoyed the line4tem veto power that Congress professed to want to give him, this is just the sort of measure he would use it to strike. (This only served to remind Republicans of why they haven’t yet gotten around to appointing conferees to work out the kinks in line-item veto legislation.)

The president signed the legislation despite McCurry’s pious reminder of Bill Clinton’s deep concern that it might lead to more highway fatalities.

If only welfare reform were so simple. Or anything else, for that matter. Do the people’s bidding, and jam it down the throat of the status-quo administration: This was exactly the revolution some of the most fervent revolutionaries envisiorted.

It’s true that when it was in charge, the Democratic congressional leadership eff, ectively blocked any consideration of a repeal of the speed limit — a straightforward coalition-politics payout to the Naderites and other “safety” groups. And it’s also true that the question of whether or not there should be a national speed limit isn’t a bad proxy for the question of whether you are a liberal or a conservative. This is the nanny state hitting the open road. Safety and energy conservation, the issues for liberals, are not the issues for conservatives. Individual freedom and an overweening federal government are the issues.

Still, this victory is not much of a model for anything else. The bill includes a measure that will withhold highway funds from states that do not lower the drunkdriving threshold for those under 21 years old to 0.02 percent (0.1 being typical for adults). The states are apparently not as full of common-sense wisdom on the subject of teenage drinking as they are on speed limits.

This is progress, something real for the folks back home. But it’s also another lesson in how hard it is to make progress, and on the dicey relationship between principle and legislation, even in these nominally revolutionary times.