House GOP Plan Aims To Bolster Family Ties

Family act offers tax credits for care of elderly and for adoption, and tougher child-support enforcement, but cost is high

DAN QUAYLE'S ``family values'' may soon see a new day.

One of the 10 proposals in the Republican ``Contract With America'' includes tax credits for care of elderly relatives and adoption, more efficient child-support collection mechanisms, and tougher punishments for sexual abuse.

Called the Family Reinforcement Act, the proposal was designed to be agreeable to both Republicans and Democrats.

``There was a concerted effort to eliminate abortion, school choice, and other controversial issues so as to attract as big a following as possible,'' says a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill.

House Republicans have promised to bring all 10 Contract proposals to a floor vote in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.

Bipartisan support for the family act is strong, but the cost - $9 billion over five years, according to Republican estimates - remains a source of contention.

``The biggest challenge for supporters is finding the means to pay for it,'' says the staffer, requesting anonymity. ``We have some ideas,'' but no specifics thus far.

Beyond cost, some Democrats charge that many of the ideas are simply rehashed versions of plans they introduced in the last two sessions of Congress.

But the most consistent criticism is that the proposal does not go far enough.

How much substance?

Some elements are ``largely symbolic,'' rhetorical tools for Republicans to advance the cause of ``family values,'' charges Margaret Weir of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

The $500 tax credit for families caring for elderly relatives, for example, is only ``a nod toward the fact that there are some serious problems,'' says Judy Waxman, director of government affairs for the Washington-based lobbying group Families USA, referring to the financial burdens involved in caring for elderly family members.

Though she insists the money could be used more effectively, Ms. Waxman admits, ``Who's going to turn [the $500] down?''

The tax credit would be refundable, so even families that owe no federal taxes would receive $500.

For the 58,000 families each year who pay an average of $10,000 in fees to adopt a child, the $5,000 adoption tax credit - also refundable - is ``very much on the mark,'' says Mark Eckman, executive director of the Datz Foundation, a Washington-based adoption provider.

While the tax credits in the Family Reinforcement Act could cost $9 billion over five years, the child-support provision could save taxpayers millions of dollars down the road.

According to a recent report by the House Ways and Means Committee, the federal government saved 12 percent of its Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) budget last year when child-support payments put 241,000 families above the welfare line.

Unpaid child support

Still, about $30 billion of missed payments went uncollected.

``The budgetary implications [of savings on welfare payments through support collection] are enormous,'' says the Republican staffer, citing the Ways and Means report.

The bill requires noncustodial parents who receive state aid to participate in a state job-search program if they fall behind in payments.

And since 30 percent of collections occur across state lines - with mom living in Florida and dad in California, for instance - it also provides federal money to streamline interstate enforcement regulations and procedures.

``This is just the tip of the iceberg on child support,'' the Republican staffer says.

Proposals are circulating among both parties for tough measures such as giving the Internal Revenue Service power to seize payment from delinquent parents' bank accounts or other assets.

The Family Reinforcement Act sets a minimum sentence of three years for federal sex-offenders and people found guilty of running child-prostitution rings. The act also increases the penalty for those who traffic in pornography on computer networks.

Finally, and apparently in a bow to the more conservative Republican lawmakers, the bill requires parental consent for minors to participate in any federally funded survey that asks about issues such as family or individual sexual behavior or household income.

Although almost identical federal regulations already exist, this provision in the bill reaffirms a commitment to privacy.

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