Riots, Budget Pose Dilemma for Congress
Washington's tough task: trying to spend on social programs in wake of L.A. unrest and balance the budget
WASHINGTON — AT urgent speed, Congress appears to be running in two radically different directions: toward spending programs to address the nation's urban crisis and toward a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
This being an election year, both are by definition aimed at proving to a weary electorate that Washington is capable of firm action.
The Los Angeles riots have sent Congress and the president scurrying to new-old programs and have produced the first White House invitation of the year for congressional leaders of both parties to come and talk compromise on an urban agenda.
Emergency funding of $800 million to repair Los Angeles and Chicago has bipartisan support and should be approved quickly.
The White House and Congress have found some common ground on the longer-term agenda - such as the need to try urban "enterprise zones" - but the specifics, cost, and source of funding remained unclear after Tuesday's meeting.
Meanwhile, the budget deficit, creeping toward $400 billion, is strangling the United States economy's ability to grow, many members of Congress say. For the first time, longtime efforts to require a balanced budget constitutionally - forcing Draconian cuts in government spending - have a good shot at success.
But how can Congress contemplate doing both at the same time?
Some congressional observers respond with a business-as-usual shrug. Others justify the apparent contradiction by saying that if they could write policy themselves, they would find money for urban America by cutting costly programs they believe are unnecessary - and reduce the deficit at the same time.
"It's not necessarily an inconsistency," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts. "If you insist on spending billions to keep US troops in Europe and $40 billion on a space station, then it's inconsistent. But if we would do the right thing and reduce military spending, then you can have both." Both can be done
Dave Mason, a Congress-watcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, also does not see an unavoidable inconsistency in the drive for a balanced budget and a revived urban agenda.
In urban policy, "money is not the issue at all," Mr. Mason says. He points out that a lot of Housing and Ubran Development Secretary Jack Kemp's proposals aim to be revenue-neutral by redirecting existing resources.
"There's a fairly decent prospect the president and a majority in Congress will pass something to appear active," he says. "If the president puts out a bold program and pushes for it, there's a chance it could be effective. But if he leads with compromise, it won't go anywhere. You'll wind up with least-common-denominator policies."
By the time Bush and congressional leaders were emerging from their Tuesday meeting, the C-word was already being heard - and in a hopeful fashion. A compromise is in the works, leaders declared. And given the inability of Congress and the White House to complete any major legislation this spring, compromise would appear to be the only way to achieve anything.
From the liberal perspective, Robert Greenstein, head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, agrees that Congress can probably succeed in working at cross-purposes with itself - trying to balance the budget and spend money at the same time - by, in fact, spending little in the end.
"The bottom line is that they are not really going to spend more on the cities in the long term," Mr. Greenstein says.
"In the short run, between now and November, we will get a series of very modest efforts, described especially by the White House as being far larger and more significant than they really are. Come November, they [the federal government] will walk away from [the cities]."
The cold truth, he says, is that the majority of voters are now in the suburbs and their concerns will take precedence. The weakest constituents, the poor, are likely to lose out.
But for now, urban policy is at the top of the Washington agenda. Bush's six-point plan, by his own admission, contains old proposals, but now called "new" because they have not been tried. Bush's plan
His plan calls for a program to "weed out" criminals and "seed" with social programs ($500 million requested); tenant ownership of public housing ($1 billion); urban enterprise zones that provide tax incentives for businesses to locate in inner-city areas; education reform, including the use of vouchers to subsidize tuition in private schools; welfare reform; and jobs programs for youth.
Democrats agree on the basic areas of action, but often differ on the methods. On housing, for example, Democrats tend to prefer a program that would cost less per participant and therefore benefit more people.
After Tuesday's meeting, Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine reported "general agreement" on a program, with specifics to be worked out later. But a senior aide to House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington cautions against heightened expectations. "If the expectation is that we are making up for a decade of urban decline, then there will be disappointment," says the aide. "But just the fact of getting everyone in the room together is a good sign."