Jobs bill on fast track in House
Washington — A jobs and recession relief bill is moving through Congress at lightning speed, but not without delayed thunder from critics - including environmentalists and one lawmaker who calls it a collection of ''pet projects.''
Moving toward almost certain House passage on Thursday, the bill would designate $4.6 billion for the current year on items ranging from a dial-a-ride program in Hillsdale, Mich., to flood control in the Mississippi Valley.
About $500 million would go toward humanitarian aid, such as food distribution and refitting old public schools to be shelters for the homeless. In a separate title, the bill would shore up state unemployment funds.
No one is predicting the exact number of jobs to be created. Estimates vary widely from 300,000 to 600,000. Even the bill's supporters say it would hardly put a dent in the current 10.4 percent unemployment rate.
''The main goal for the leadership is emergency assistance,'' says an aide to House majority whip Thomas S. Foley (D) of Washington, who led a task force on the jobs bill. ''We feel there will be a jobs bill after this.''
Among the most vocal critics, environmentalists protest that the bill calls for spending $545 million for water and flood-control projects, but the projects are unspecified. ''It just looks like pork barreling as usual,'' says Edward R. Osann, coordinator for the Water Project Review, a coalition of 20 major ecology groups.
In a letter to House members, he charged that the ''federal dam-building program will produce fewer jobs per dollar'' than any of the other projects in the bill. What worries environmentalists is that while most appropriations bills list the projects they would fund, this one doesn't.
Mr. Osann says that the money could go to controversial projects such as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in Mississippi and Alabama, the Garrison Diversion in North Dakota, or the Stonewall Jackson Lake in West Virginia. ''There's no assurance that any particular project will not be funded,'' he says. His group is seeking to cut $325 million in funds for water project construction.
They will have an ally in Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who will lead a fight on the House floor to transfer water project money into health services.
Even more biting in his criticism than the environmentalists is Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) of Massachusetts, who has labeled the bill ''lousy'' and added that ''this is a piece of paper with pet projects for everybody with an 'in.' ''
Much of the money in the $4.6 billion bill would be divided among states, cities, and rural areas according to national formulas. But where it does list specific projects, they are often in the districts or home states of House Appropriations Committee members.
As author of the jobs bill, that committee has left its footprints most clearly in the transportation section of the bill. A check of proposed mass-transportation and railroad programs found that nearly every member of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation has brought home something. And that includes Representative Conte, who is a member of the subcommittee and who admits that his own ''pet project,'' $10 million to improve the rail line on Cape Cod, is in the bill.
Of 11 mass-transportation projects mentioned by name, every one could be traced to a committee member.
''I'm pleased to have something for Sacramento,'' says Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, an appropriations committee member who won $8 million for a light-rail mass-transit project that had been delayed by tight money.
''When I saw the opportunity, obviously I was going to move,'' he says, adding that he has no trouble defending the project since it is already operating, is ''efficient,'' and ready to spend the money. Moreover, he says that Sacramento has a jobless rate that is 2 percent above the national average and the work involved could put unemployed construction workers back on the job.
Even freshman Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D) of New York, a transportation subcommittee member, delivered $15 million for railroad repair to his Long Island district.
Other winners include Dade County, Fla., which has among its congressmen William Lehman (D), chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee. Dade County would have $23 million for bus and rail projects. And Rep. Carl D. Pursell (R), a subcommittee member, won aid for a train station at Jackson, Mich., and $18.8 million for the dial-a-ride bus project in Hillsdale, both of which are in his district.
The bill also calls for spending $33 million for an unspecified ''highway demonstration'' project, which is widely believed to be destined for the district of Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D) of Mississippi, chairman of the appropriations committee.
Democratic staffers point out that writing such projects into bills is standard procedure for winning supporters. ''If you're putting together a bill, generally speaking you put together a bill (with projects) in districts where the members are,'' says a subcommittee staff member.
Following the House vote this week, the bill moves to the Senate, which will draw up its version of the jobs legislation.