Congress' tough choices have only been put off

October 09, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- If all goes as planned, federal workers will be back on the job today, and national museums and monuments will reopen. But that doesn't mean the nation's budget crisis will be over. It has only been postponed, with the hardest decisions yet to be made by a reluctant Congress.

In other words, experts say, in about two weeks expect to see a repeat of the doomsday deadlines and threatened cutbacks that led up to last weekend, along with plenty of special-interest squabbling over who will pay the higher taxes sure to become part of the final budget.

Congress has set an Oct. 19 deadline for itself, but even that may not be the end of it.

"We'll see a lot of cliff-hanging, and eventually something will happen and it won't please anybody," predicts James L. Sundquist, a senior fellow emeritus of the Brookings Institution. "I don't think we'll see another 'shutdown,' but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Congress will wait until after the election [Nov. 6] to come back and do these dirty deeds."

That's not to say that members of Congress have done nothing.

For one thing, they've changed the cast of key players. Before it was a group of five congressional leaders and three White House officials who met privately to conclude a much-heralded budget summit. They emerged later than planned with an agreement to cut military spending, increase Medicare premiums and raise taxes on gasoline, heating oil, cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and high-priced cars, boats, furs and jewelry.

But when a majority of House Republicans bolted from their leaders, a majority of Democrats joined the stampede, and the plan died last Friday amid the rebellious jeering of a 254-179 vote on the House floor.

President Bush then vetoed a resolution that would have kept the government going while Congress regrouped, saying he wanted to see progress toward a new agreement first. That led to the shutdown of all but essential government services over the Columbus Day weekend.

The work now will be handled by the usual committee system in Congress, which means that the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and its wheeler-dealer chairman, Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., will lead the way.

The committee begins its work with a goal of raising as much new revenue as the defeated plan. But the specifics of the plan defeated last week have been cast aside, leaving those decisions up to the committee.

"They've put off the hard decisions, sure enough," Mr. Sundquist says of Congress. "And they're going to have a tough time."

As the customary seat of so much financial power, Ways and Means members have long been the objects of intense and rewarding attention from armies of lobbyists. During their re-election campaigns in 1988, for example, the committee's 36 members got an average of $34,000 apiece from insurance industry political action committees, nearly $6,000 apiece from beer, wine and liquor groups, and more than $11,000 apiece from commodities and securities traders, according to figures compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. No other committee did better in any of those categories.

And after being frustrated by the secretive workings of the earlier budget summit, which virtually shut special-interest representatives out of the process, lobbyists are now swarming Ways and Means with renewed vigor.

None of this will make the waiting any easier for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who are still subject to layoffs or a shutdown if talks again fall apart.

"It's just a terrible situation for federal employees," says John N. Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"We've been on tenterhooks since August, since they first started talking about furloughs. . . . They've basically fudged the main issues of entitlement and taxes, and ultimately they're going to have to deal with them. I hope we don't have to go through this again in two weeks, but it's a good possibility."

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