Historic US Debate Over Federal Role

As president, Congress collide over goals, future of government reaches a crossroads

FORGET about who sat where in Air Force One, or the nasty name a congressman hurled at the president over the weekend.

The budget clash that has produced the longest government shutdown ever is not just a squabble among men who forgot their manners. It's the manifestation of a nation at a crossroads, a conflict of historic proportions that goes beyond the question of how the government spends its money.

At stake is the role of the federal government in Americans' lives - how big the government should be, what functions it should perform, and whether the federal government should provide a seamless safety net for the poor and elderly. "I have no crystal ball," said presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos at a recent Monitor breakfast. "I don't think anybody's ever been involved in a process ... quite like this. I think it's incredibly extraordinary."

The conflict goes beyond the budget situation, which at press time remained fluid. It has manifested itself all around the government as various spending bills have stalled at the hands of intransigent GOP members of Congress and immovable Democrats in the White House.

In the House, Rep. Ernest Istook (R) of Oklahoma has held up legislation with his effort to, as he puts it, "defund the left." He wants to end federal subsidies to interest groups that lobby the government.

In the Senate, Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina has engaged in an angry four-month standoff with the White House over the senator's plan to reorganize and consolidate the nation's foreign-policy bureaucracy.

At one level, the dispute, which froze consideration of most ambassadorial appointments and international agreements, was over the size of government. At another, it is a clash of cultures between the elitist State Department and the populist, anti-establishment, neo-isolationist views of Mr. Helms, which are widely shared by many younger GOP members of the 104th Congress.

In a way, the larger clash is inevitable. After 40 years as the minority party in Congress, Republicans now finally run that branch of government; this is their big chance.

But the import of the choice goes beyond the Democrats' 40-year reign. It goes right to the heart of the New Deal welfare structure established by President Roosevelt to pull the nation out of the Depression. "This is the largest domestic decision since 1933," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia last weekend.

As battles between the White House and Congress go, the current conflict could go down as an important turning point in American history, depending on the result.

Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University here in Washington, cites the showdown between President Nixon and Congress as another historic clash, though the debate then centered more on the power of the president vs. that of Congress in budgetmaking rather than on the role of government itself.

Professor Lichtman goes back to the presidency of Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) for an example of a drawn-out presidential-congressional conflict that reflected a bitter clash of world views. Then, the fight was over implementation of Reconstruction, which restored the Confederate states to the Union after the Civil War.

BUT whether the current clash does indeed become one of the key turning points of American history remains to be seen. The main event of the budget process - the so-called reconciliation bill that cuts taxes and slows the growth of spending in entitlement programs, such as Medicare - has not even reached the president's desk yet.

The federal government partially shut down because the president refused to accept conditions placed on a stopgap spending bill needed to keep the government going while Congress finished work on the main spending bills.

A heavy dose of presidential politics has hardened each side: Clinton, gearing up for his reelection bid, wants to show he's not a waffler; ditto for Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, the GOP front-runner.

Even though the shutdown has produced big headlines, the closure in and of itself has not disrupted the life of the nation as much as a real shutdown would. In reality, far fewer than half of federal workers have been sent home on furlough. And as some government services initially declared "nonessential" are missed, Congress has shown a willingness to reopen them. Over the weekend, legislation made its way through both houses to send 85,000 employees back to work to process claims for Medicare, Social Security, and veterans benefits.

*Staff writer George Moffett contributed to this story.

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