Sparring over how to use gold of 'golden age'

President Clinton and GOP agree on priorities, but their differences on details may prevent action - for now.

It was the roaring '20s, an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in America. Calvin Coolidge, the man in the White House at the time, had a hands-off philosophy about it:

"Four-fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still," he once said. But by the end of the decade, the stock market would crash and be followed by the Great Depression. History would partially blame "Silent Cal" for doing nothing to head it off.

Once again, America is experiencing what many are calling a golden age of prosperity. And though the context is radically different - the country now has a stronger social safety net (Social Security and Medicare, for instance), as well as federal oversight of the stock market - the question being raised here is what, if anything, to do with this glittering moment.

President Clinton put that fundamental query to lawmakers in his State of the Union speech last week, even though political analysts point out that it's better directed at the presidential candidates than the outgoing 106th Congress.

Republican response to the president's proposals showed the two parties follow the same broad outline for use of the good-times revenues. Take this opportunity to pay off the national debt, to improve health care, and to better the nation's schools. Use it to shore up Social Security and Medicare, but also to cut taxes, and give some of the wealth back to Americans. (Coolidge, for instance, cut taxes four times - a move often publicly admired by the country's last great tax-cutter, Ronald Reagan.)

But the GOP opposition came through strongly in the details. "There is pretty much general agreement on the agenda, but there are different ways of going about it," says Charles Jones, a Brookings Institution political observer.

Indeed, traditional party divisions surfaced as Republicans sniped at Mr. Clinton's 89-minute shopping list of proposals as too long, too expensive, and too much big government. His tax cuts, meanwhile, were not large enough, or not targeted in the right direction, they argued.

That doesn't bode well for accomplishing much, and neither does the fact that this is an election year. While America may be in the midst of an economic "magic moment," as Clinton called it, it is hardly a magic moment for getting things done. No one in Congress, least of all Democrats who can taste recapturing the House, want to pass the opposition's programs, the reasoning goes.

Still, says Mr. Jones, "I don't buy the stalemate scenario." Lawmakers will want a record to run on, and the president will want to solidify his legacy, he says.

Balancing all these forces, political analysts foresee a year in which a few items are agreed on, but enough are left undone to differentiate the parties as November nears. Among possible areas of agreement:

*Tax breaks. President Clinton met the Republican demand of many years and suggested easing the so-called marriage penalty, in which married couples pay more in taxes than if they file singly. Approaches differ, but this is increasingly a bipartisan issue. There's a chance that Congress will step up to the president's proposal to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit.

*Health. It's iffy, but possible, that Congress will pass a Patients' Bill of Rights that the president would sign. But public pressure is building for something to get done in this area of managed-care reform. Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats support creating a new prescription drug benefit, and unlike last year, the industry is now on board.

*Education. Clinton is proposing significant increases in tax credits and federal financial aid for college students and their parents. Republicans are receptive, but probably not in the amounts the president envisions.

*The national debt. President Clinton says surpluses look so good now that the country can hammer out a federal budget that sets the course for paying off the national debt by 2013. Republicans couldn't agree more. The surpluses will also help extend the life of Social Security and Medicare, but don't look for any major reform in either of these entitlements - that's too hot to touch in an election year.

*The minimum wage. Congress didn't increase the minimum wage last year, but if it keeps accompanying tax cuts small, it has a good chance of making it this year.

*Poverty. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois says he'll work with the president to create business incentives for investment in the nation's rural and urban areas that have been left behind by the booming economy.

Gun control, one of the areas of concern to many Americans, does not stand much of a chance this year - except for the president's plan to beef up law enforcement of gun crimes, which is supported by the National Rifle Association.

But even if these items get done, they don't amount to any great plan of action for our gilded times, say analysts. Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation, calls them "baby steps." The real arena for determining how to handle peace and prosperity is the presidential election, he says. "The 'moment' is going to be delayed for the next president."

The general leaning among the candidates - with the exception, perhaps, of Democrat Bill Bradley - is to not do too much with this moment. The public is not pointing them in any particular direction, or making any great demands. "As a political system, ours is one of the least planned of any," says Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University. Plus, he says, "I don't think this [prosperity] has really sunk in. No one was really expecting it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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