Troubled Congress sets sights on job programs
Washington — For the new Congress, its first week of real work has been a sobering time. Not only does it face a budget with the biggest deficit in history but, more disturbing to Congress, the administration predicts unemployment will continue in the double digits.
True, a little good news finally peeked through the recession clouds as the jobless rate dipped to 10.4 percent in January from 10.8 percent in December. But in both parties, concern about jobs now appears to outweigh worries over the deficit.
As one measure of the mood, House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) of Illinois, who has long scorned ''make work'' federal jobs programs, called reporters together lastufdaveMaking jobs by saving energyWSPage 9
week to launch a ''task force on employment opportunities.''
Predictably, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D) of Massachusetts is leading the charge for jobs programs. He has set in motion a team of congressmen to draw up a plan he says will cost $5 billion to $7 billion. It would create emergency jobs in areas such as public-works construction; extend jobless benefits; fund relief projects such as soup kitchens; and propose long-range plans to boost industry.
Senate Democrats are working on a similar plan, and Senate Republicans have wasted no time in joining the crusade. Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker (R) of Tennessee enlisted President Reagan's best senatorial friend, Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, to help convince the administration that Republicans can't ignore the jobless.
''It's not like Republicans have turned their backs,'' says a Senate leadership aide. But he explains that his party prefers to speed up existing building projects that would create jobs, and avoid setting up programs that swing into action about the time the recession has ended.
With all the talk, groups on Capitol Hill have produced little of substance on the jobs problem.
''There is no package, no program . . . no price tag,'' explains the Republican aide. Senate Republicans would speed up public-works projects, such as highway work and military construction, that has already been approved.
Are the two parties entering a bidding war over jobs? ''If we're going to do anything, it's going to have to be in a bipartisan way, or nothing's going to happen,'' says the aide.
House Republican leader Michel sounded a similar call. ''I don't want my troops being naysayers to any Democratic program that comes along,'' he said last week. ''If they're working on theirs and we're working on ours, who knows? There might be a melding of ideas in between.''
While both parties move on their jobs packages, they are traveling in the same direction on defense. From Senate budget chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico to House Democrats, Congress sees the huge defense budget as the place to cut spending. But during the first week of budget hearings, neither party yet had a way to reduce the proposed 9 to 10 percent real growth in military spending.
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, appearing before several congressional panels, refused to give an inch on the Pentagon budget. But federal budget director David Stockman appeared to give at least a millimeter.
''Obviously this budget indicates there are no sacred cows,'' he told the House Budget Committee. While he defended the defense buildup by arguing that a majority of both parties favored it two years ago, he invited the congressmen to find ways to cut back.
Mr. Stockman, sharp in his testimony as in the two past years, recited budget figures from his head. He frequently went on the offensive in the face of Democratic charges that his budget takes from the poor to build up arms and goes into the red to finance tax cuts favoring the wealthy.
For the most part, partisan rancor has been low-keyed, however. Congress members had clearly taken a fresh look at their dog-eared copies of an Atlantic Magazine interview in which Stockman recanted the supply-side economics he publically promoted. But members also good-naturedly wished him well in his upcoming marriage (with hopes from one Democrat that his new domesticity might soften his attitude toward cutting social programs).
''There's less frustration on our part,'' says Rep. Vic Fasio, a California Democrat and a newcomer to the Budget Committee. With a gain of 26 seats in the House, the Democrats now have a firm grip on the Budget Committee. The new strength gives his party a heavier burden, says Mr. Fasio.
''The problems that we're all presented with are so acute and so troublesome that we can't be irresponsible,'' he says.
Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin, a member of the Joint Economic Committee , finds more flexibility among GOP House members, but not within the Reagan administration.