Economic growth mandate lost sight of in Congress

When congressional leaders sat down last week to draft the federal budget cuts that foreshadowed President Carter's anti-inflation program, Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D) of California, co-author of the full-employment law that has set US economic priorities since 1978, was invited to join them.

During the opening session he quickly sensed the way things were moving, got up, and walked out.

The nation's new prescription of budget cuts, curbs on credit, and oil fee, and other inflation-fighting measures turns its back on the economic policy that is still enshrined, at least nominally, in law and the philosophy of the Democratic Party that controls the White House and Congress.

The Humphrey-Hawkins Law -- conceived in the depths of the mid-1970s recession by Mr. Hawkins, a black Los Angeles congressman, and the last Sen. Hubert M. Humphrey (D) of Minnesota -- commits the federal government to promoting full employment and economic growth.

Although sweetend by such confections as a call for a balanced budget, to make it more palatable to a reluctant Congress, the strongly pro-growth thrust of the law remains unmistakable.

President Carter, who had endorsed the bill during his 1976 campaign, signed it into law within days of the second anniversary of his election victory.

But now, running hard for re-election amid signs of voter uneasiness over inflation, roaring at an annual rate of 18 percent, the President is pushing an economic plan far different from Humphrey-Hawkins.

"It flies directly in the face of it," declares an aide who helped Representative Hawkins write the law.

While the principle of Humphrey-Hawkins is economic growth, the aim of the President's program is what he calls economic "discipline."

One provision of the 1978 law (Section 104), in fact, specifically prohibits the sort of economic trade-off -- fighting inflation by trigering an economic slowdown -- now advocated by Mr. Carter.

Supporters of Humphrey-Hawkins contend that the most effective way to combat inflation is not by crimping economic growth, but by stimulating growth in the sectors of the economy where inflation is most severe because of shortages -- energy, housing, food, medical care.

"It's a fraud to go to the public saying [a balanced budget] will help in the fight against inflation," says one of them, Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D) of Maryland.

Although the full-employment legislation remains the law of the land, proponents concede it is not enforceable legally.

"But it is enforceable," notes a Hawkins aide, "in terms of political accountability."

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