Congress moves on social policy. But lack of funds, paucity of proposals, and growing rift between left and right may stymie major reform

Congress is acting with surprising speed on its domestic policy agenda. For example, a bill to give $500 million to help the homeless, which is now in committee, could be before the full House before day's end.

Moving such a sizable proposal as this so quickly early in the session is usual. But it is part of a recent flurry of activity on domestic social legislation in the halls of Congress. A series of bills has been introduced and a steady stream of publicized hearings held, on issues ranging from homelessness to welfare reform to long-term medical care.

Does this movement mean 1987 will be the year that Congress, with Democrats controlling both houses, finally passes a great deal of major legislation reforming current social laws?

Perhaps. But many experts say it is unlikely. ``All in all,'' says Gilbert Y. Steiner of the Brookings Institution, ``there's going to be less than we might have anticipated, given the strong results of November's election.''

He cites two reasons: too little money, too few ideas. ``Certainly the question of no money to spend has scared off a whole lot of reformers. ... Add to that a relative paucity of new ideas, and you don't come out with a whole lot.''

Other experts offer additional reasons. They note that no broad agreement exists, in Congress or out, on programs that would be dramatically better than some of today's most controversial ones, such as welfare. They add that liberals and conservatives so distrust each other that, on many issues, each is concerned that any change would be for the worse, and thus each tends to support the status quo.

Several longtime federal officials privately cite another problem: built-in constituencies that become effective pressure groups able to thwart major change, from welfare to military procurement. Members of Congress can be very protective of their subcommittee chairmanships and the industries in their districts.

Government-financed studies, although generally well done, tend to conclude accurately that existing social programs are worthwhile, without noting whether better results might be obtained for less money if quite different programs were enacted. Manufacturers of products that the government buys, from aircraft to foodstuffs, protect their federal markets zealously.

Several experts say a genteel debate is under way between Democratic liberals and moderates in Congress as to how far to push social reform this year. Welfare reform is an example, says Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute.

A number of longtime welfare experts ``want to seize this opportunity to do some good things,'' he notes.

Many liberals, he says, ``have taken the November results as a referendum on liberalism vs. conservatism,'' and seek expensive increases in federal spending on social programs.

Moderates seek rather more reform, keeping together the fragile alliance they have built in recent years with conservatives. Given the huge federal deficit they realize that large increases in federal domestic spending could backfire at the polls next year.

The choice now, Mr. Besharov says, is whether Congress will offer programs that provide a lot of money but little reform (if liberals prevail) or a little more money and a lot more reform (``if the center holds'').

On these domestic issues conservatives, very much part of the struggles of recent years, are now generally standing on the congressional sidelines awaiting the outcome of the current tussle.

But as many observers agree, politics is not the only motivator, or even the main one, for many members of Congress.

For many the issue is conviction. For instance, conservatives as well as liberals speak of New York's Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) as intent on reforming welfare so as to improve the circumstances of the poor. Many approve the desire of Mr. Moynihan, Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, and others to aid the homeless.

Thus far this legislative year the two most visible social reformers in Congress have been Moynihan and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who has held a series of hearings on social problems from welfare to health care.

Close observers say that whatever else Congress might or might not do, at some point either this year or next it will pass measures aimed at dealing with two of society's problem areas: welfare, and the high cost of extended medical care, often referred to as catastrophic health care.

Brookings's Mr. Steiner calls this health problem ``the drug issue of 1987,'' a reference to Congress's willingness last year to pass legislation aimed at reducing the nation's illegl drug problems.

Health experts point out that the elderly, in particular, are hard hit by the costs of long-term care, since the government program that aids them - medicare - pays nothing for most long-term nursing-home stays, thus forcing families into poverty. Congress can be expected to recommend some kind of federal assistance, which the administration likely would not accept, ``and the issue will be joined,'' as Steiner puts it.

This week the Reagan administration is holding a series of meetings about welfare with outside groups.

The White House before long may announce a welfare reform proposal that has the President's backing. It is widely thought such a plan would revolve around the proposal of presidential aide Charles Hobbs, who late last year recommended that states be permitted to increase for five years their experiments with welfare and several other social programs that aid the poor. The likelihood is that such a proposal would not recommend increased federal funds.

Congress could be expected at least to permit states to conduct more experiments with welfare reform. It might also require that every state provide welfare benefits to otherwise qualified parents even if the father is in the home. About half the states do not now do so.

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