GOP Takes Fresh Aim at Cabinet Posts

New budget deal will force major downsizing of several agencies, some senators say.

This year's bipartisan budget agreement has rekindled a hope that has long burned in the hearts of many Republicans: shrinking the federal government.

A group of Senate Republicans sees in the deal a new opportunity to close Cabinet departments - namely, Commerce and Energy - and to downsize or reorganize other US agencies.

"This budget agreement ... is going to put a lot of pressure on us to economize in government," says Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan, who is seeking to shut down the Commerce Department. "I believe it forces us more than ever before to find ways to run government more efficiently."

Over the next 10 years, the deal between Congress and President Clinton will squeeze that part of the federal budget that doesn't go to defense or entitlements like Social Security and Medicare - the part that pays for national parks, environmental programs, the space shuttle, Head Start, and the like.

But it's also the part that most Democrats and at least some Republicans have protected in the past. This time, though, GOP lawmakers have chosen their targets carefully, remembering how electioneering Democrats painted Republicans as anti-education for urging that the Education Department be abolished.

Asked if there is any receptivity in his caucus to the GOP ideas, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota replies tersely: "None whatsoever."

Winnowing is under way

Still, the GOP has already made some headway in its efforts to shrink government. During the last Congress, 116 federal agencies, bureaus, and commissions were shut down, says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. At least two more, the Arms Control and Development Agency and the United States Information Agency, are soon to be folded into the State Department.

Now, three Cabinet departments are under new attack:

* Senator Abraham's bill to close the Commerce Department would eliminate several agencies and programs, spin off the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into an independent agency, and privatize the Patent Office. It would also create a new Federal Statistics Service, incorporating the Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Abraham expects a hearing on the proposal soon after the Memorial Day recess.

* Sen. Rod Grams (R) of Minnesota is sponsoring legislation to abolish the Energy Department, which he calls "an agency that has no mission." The bill would end some programs and distribute various others among the Defense Department, Interior Department, Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Science Foundation.

"When you look at it, it was formed 20 years ago to produce an energy policy and make us less dependent on foreign oil," Senator Grams says. "Today there is no energy policy.... And we're now twice as dependent on foreign oil as we were 20 years ago." He hopes to get the bill through committee and onto the Senate floor this year.

* Sen. Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado wants to give block grants to the states to develop their own housing programs and give public-housing tenants vouchers to find housing. He believes this would eventually lead to dismantlement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We're moving in that direction [with this bill]," Senator Allard says. "If we can block-grant this down to the states, then obviously that means that much less need for a large bureaucracy in Washington."

Senator Lott hasn't endorsed any of the proposals outright. "It's not our intent to go after particular departments," he says. But "I do suspect that over the next year and a half, there may be a vote on one or more of those." But Lott says programs should be eliminated only after careful study, not just for the symbolism.

Underwhelmed Democrats

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a centrist Democrat with a bent toward government reform, is, like Senator Daschle, underwhelmed by the proposals. "Each of those departments is doing things that everybody in Congress, Republican and Democrat, want done," he says. "In the case of Commerce, which has been a favorite target ... I just think that the case is so overwhelming that [it is] critical for our future. I really don't know how anyone could responsibly vote to terminate it."

But Abraham hopes that Democrats will "reconsider their blanket opposition to any changes, because I think it's really outdated in light of this budget agreement. I think now we ought to be looking ahead to see how we can economize."

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