Republicans Plan to Ax Commerce Dept.

HOUSE Republicans, fueled by the fervent federalism of their freshman bloc, have brought their revolution to the doorstep of the executive branch.

In their most dramatic step yet to shrink a federal government that they believe has grown unwieldy since the 1960s, GOP leaders in the lower chamber announced yesterday their intention to close the Department of Commerce in the upcoming budget year.

The move, the first-ever attempt to close a Cabinet agency, would shut down hundreds of agencies, privatize others, and consolidate all federal trade functions under one roof. House Republicans have promised to shut down the Departments of Energy and Education as well, but not this year.

At a time when Congress and the White House are already threatening a standoff over the budget this fall, the House bid to close Commerce will likely only increase the possibility of a ''train wreck'' - beltway terminology for the shutdown of government.

''We obviously oppose the elimination of the Commerce Department, ''says Lawrence Haas, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. The Department ''is a central component in the presidents overall strategy for economic growth, job creation, and higher wages.''

But observers doubt that the debate over Commerce will come down to a standoff between the White House and Congress. House Republicans have a closer obstacle, says John Makin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. It's the Senate.

''The Senate is still in transition,'' he says. ''Right now there are two generations, and the torch won't pass until the next Congress.'' Appropriations Chairman Mark Hatfield, an Old Bull Republican from Oregon, ''is not the kind of guy to see Commerce go.''

Still, for House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R) of Ohio, the move is an encouraging sign during a budget season that he hoped would be more radical than his colleagues have made it. House Republicans will provide details of their plan to close Commerce in September, when the House and Senate reconcile spending bills with the budget resolution passed last month.

''The federal government is like a lumbering elephant that broke free inside the circus tent,'' he said at a Monitor breakfast yesterday. ''This Commerce Department [move] is very good, but when I see the Appalachian Regional Commission approved or the Tennessee Valley Authority approved, [by appropriators] I'm disappointed.''

Mr. Kasich's lament is understandable. As Budget chairman, he presided over the blueprint for how much Congress can spend each year as it works toward a balanced budget in 2002, but he has no control over specific spending decisions.

That work is left to the appropriation committee, which right now is forcing late night debates on the House floor over the 13 spending bills Congress approves each year. House Republicans hope to finish 12 of those bills by the Aug. 4 recess.

And while the spending bills make enough deep cuts to provoke almost daily veto threats from the White House and caution from Republican senators, the budget decisions aren't as radical as Kasich or the large GOP freshman class would like.

Despite the bravado of GOP budget-balancers and right-wing revolutionaries, Big Bird will still be a federal employee three years from now, the controversial F-22 advanced Air force fighter gets a lift in funding, and the Appalachian Regional Commission can keep its coffee pots percolating.

''The Republicans have been showing the velvet touch,'' says Allen Schick, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution. ''They'll have to cut more next year than this. But so far, the bigger the program, the more likely it is to survive.''

Not that House Republicans aren't trying. The House appropriations bills cut or eliminate scores of programs as part of the GOP effort to balance the budget in seven years. More than simply documents of austerity, they are the tools of ideology. By restricting funding, they limit abortion and poverty assistance, bind environmental regulations, and encourage privatization.

But House Republicans showing that while budget cutting has become the leading cause on Capitol Hill, even the most radical lawmakers are concerned about going too far. Energy programs like the Rural Utilities Service (formerly the Rural Electrification Administration) and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which are traditional Republican pets, survive. ''Rural areas outside the South are Republican constituencies,'' Jack Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. ''The Appalachian Regional Commission - if you can't do away with that, there's a problem. If the Republicans want a revolution, they'll have to be prepared to break some eggs.''

Meanwhile, the more tempered Senate is already bucking House provisions. On Tuesday, for example, the upper chamber restored funding for the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which the House had planned to abolish. And Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, sees plenty more to object to.

The White House, for its part, has embarked on a mid-summer chest-thumping campaign. Hoping to establish himself as the lone defender of education and environmental causes, President Clinton has begun waving the veto threat in two to three orchestrated speeches a week.

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