LIKE predawn fog blanketing a lake, confusion has settled over the child care issue in Congress. Although everyone knows what the lake will look like when the fog lifts, however, no one in or out of Congress is sure what the day-care situation will be when the legislative confusion clears.
Issues in Congress include:
Financial aid to parents of young children for child care. If aid is to be given, to whom - only the poor or also the middle class?
Aid through cash payments or tax breaks.
Assessment of federal standards for child care centers and family-based facilities.
Government aid to centers that are housed in church facilities. If such funding is given, it must not erode the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, while at the same time ensure that church-related centers are not discriminated against in allocating dollars.
Sufficient aid to maintain child-care centers. Many lack enough money to boost salaries high enough to attract qualified teachers and aides to stay on a long-term basis.
In any case congressional observers say it is highly unlikely that Congress will be able to reach agreement on the final shape of a child-care bill this year, with only two or three weeks left before a pre-Thanksgiving adjournment target. They say that prospects are fair but far from certain that Congress and the president can reach agreement next year.
Congressional confusion over the issue mirrors the current disagreement among Americans over the best way to care for their preschool children.
Today slightly more than 50 percent of mothers of children under age six work at least part time. The largest number of children of working mothers are cared for in small groups in the home of a person unrelated to the family, usually a mother herself. These arrangements are called family day care.
Approximately 25 percent of young children are cared for by a relative. And an increasing number of children are cared for in formally organized child-care centers, the fastest-growing child-care arrangement.
The House of Representatives is trying to decide what to do with the two day-care proposals it has passed and attached to a debt-related bill, the so-called budget reconciliation measure. It's clear that the two proposals, which in places are contradictory, must be removed from the measure. The White House is adamant about this. But no one is sure whether they will be appended to some other bill.
Robert Rector, a domestic policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says that if the House is to pass one single measure that both the Senate and the president are willing to approve, it first must resolve some 10 major problems. Mr. Rector says these range from the religious issue to new regulations in the measure sponsored by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D) of California. Rector says the Hawkins bill contains ``183 new regulations.''
Proponents of both House measures support more money for the Head Start program, in which only one of every five poor children is enrolled. Head Start is a government-financed program to provide preschooling to poor children. In addition, proponents support an expanded tax credit for the working poor to defray part of the costs of child care, and a new program to provide funds to states for care of children before and after school.
The sharpest difference between the two House proposals is in the way they would provide funds to the states. The measure originally approved by the Education and Labor Committee would establish a new program that would be funded through annual congressional appropriations. By contrast, the plan passed by the Ways and Means Committee would earmark child-care funds in an existing program, Social Services Block Grants.
Both House proposals have aroused the opposition of some conservatives who see them as slanted in favor of child-care centers and against care given children by family members. ``The general thrust of both bills has been to put money directly into child-care centers,'' says Rector, while making care by family members essentially ineligible.
THE Senate now is waiting to see how the House resolves its current impasse, and what it decides to do with its child-care measures. Earlier this year the Senate approved its own broad child-care proposal, which unlike House proposals is separate from the budget reconciliation measure.
The Senate bill offers both tax credits and grants in its proposal, estimated to cost about $1.75 billion the first year.
Even if House and Senate agree, there is the question of what President Bush would accept.
Administration officials have emphasized that they want a bill that provides funds through tax credits and is targeted on poor families. Rector says the Bush administration probably would be willing to accept a measure that also includes a small amount of money in grants, provided the emphasis is on tax credits.
Ironically, the number of American children in day care is likely to increase substantially, whatever the government does, says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``We are in the midst of a tremendous expansion of child care in this country.''
He offers two reasons:
Federal money spent on the popular Head Start program is steadily increasing. Now $170 million a year, it is expanding at the rate of 10 percent annually, Mr. Besharov says.
The welfare reform program that Congress passed last year will substantially increase the amount of child care provided to mothers trying to get off welfare. ``Child care is now an entitlement to any woman in the jobs program, and a transition benefit'' for six months after she leaves welfare and enters the work force, Besharov says.
States are in the early stages of putting the welfare reforms into action, including enrolling women now on welfare in programs to move them into the work force, and providing them with child care. ``Once they put that program in place across the country, it's going to grow,'' Besharov adds.
[ sidebar: ]
This is the first of three articles written in conjunction with the Domestic Policy Association's National Issues Forum. The National Issues Forum is an annual project of the DPA, a nationwide network of almost 500 colleges, libraries, civic organizations, and other groups. Each fall, participating groups hold public meetings to discuss three national policy issues. The DPA then sponsors meetings with government and other national leaders to share the results of the discussions. 1. TODAY - CHILD CARE 2. NOV. 14 - THE ENVIRONMENT 3. NOV. 21 - THE DRUG CRISIS For more information on the project, write to: NATIONAL ISSUES FORUM, 100 COMMONS ROAD, DAYTON, OH 45459-2777