A Government of Neros


September 28, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Even as Congress slithers to a close, caught in exquisite indecision over a post-Los Angeles riot urban-aid bill that in reality has been turned into a Christmas tree of tax breaks for special interests, our noble representatives have something to boast about.

Just 10 days after Hurricane Andrew smashed across parts of Florida and Louisiana, the Senate and House rather easily threw together, and the president under klieg lights signed, an $11.1 billion emergency-aid bill, busting the budget-restraint agreements that are applied to virtually every other piece of federal spending.

No one denies Andrew was a cataclysmic storm. It left 25 dead, more than 200,000 homeless, and caused $10 billion to $20 billion in damage. Why have a powerful federal government if it isn't ready to step in and help under those circumstances?

But the Los Angeles riots were a social cataclysm of equal proportion. Nearly 50 people died, and three days of rioting, looting and arson triggered over $1 billion in immediate damage.

Without intense national, state and local attention to the social misery and alienation, the deep ethnic hatreds and the biased criminal-justice system that triggered the rioting, a generation of discord, violence and economic decline may await us. The long-term consequences could easily overshadow Andrew.

Of course it's easier to figure out how to rebuild flattened suburbs than how to start rebuilding a cohesive economy, family structure and social peace in battered inner-city neighborhoods. Should the focus be on job training, youth service programs, day pTC care for young families, all-day schools, support for community policing or striving indigenous community-development corporations? Or should one go for the enterprise-zone nostrum Housing Secretary Jack Kemp has been pushing for over a decade now?

The answers aren't simple, but this is one reason we have a Congress and chief executive -- to figure out the tough questions, and act.

But George Bush, after the riots, didn't have a ghost of an idea what to do. And Congress' response has been an abomination.

Nero-like, the lawmakers fiddled about for two months before producing a $1 billion emergency-aid package, not just for Los Angeles but to help Chicago recover from its downtown flood. The bill included millions for federal emergency aid, summer youth jobs and disaster loans. But with President Bush threatening a veto, significant money for Head Start, poor schools and the president's own ''weed and seed'' program were cut from the bill.

All that was supposed to be short-term aid. Permanent help for the cities got defined as enterprise zones and was soon submerged in an omnibus, $17 billion-to-$32 billion tax bill covering every topic from individual retirement accounts to ''amortization for intangibles,'' railroad retirement benefits, club dues and repeal of luxury taxes.

And while the lobbyists buzzed about that bill, shocking things happened even to the enterprise zones (which may or may not end up helping desperately poor neighborhoods anyway). In the House version, half of the zones, and in the Senate version 40 percent, got earmarked for rural areas (lots of riots there, folks!).

When New Jersey's Sen. Bill Bradley moved to strip the bill of nearly $3 billion in business and upper-income tax breaks and spend that money on community development and job training, the full Senate repulsed the man who is arguably its most deeply concerned member on the urban dilemma and racism, by a 80-to-14 vote.

The entire tax bill, caught between congressional greed and presidential veto threats because it eliminates a couple of tax breaks for the wealthy, could end up on the cutting-room floor.

Little would be lost if that happened. The enterprise zones are a chancy gift to urban America. And should Bill Clinton be elected, we might just see presidential clout behind a substantially broader and more sensitive aid package for Los Angeles and other imperiled cities.

Just last week, Mr. Clinton reiterated his support for 96 community-development banks -- a model that's worked spectacularly well in Chicago -- at a cost of $150 million a year. He also wants to set up 1,000 ''micro-enterprise'' programs to help poor people get business loans of $500 or $1,000.

Mr. Clinton also backs enterprise zones, but only in the context of much broader support for families, Head Start, education and job training. None of the cash figures he's named are humongous, but his ideas reflect a fresh approach and show the kernels of a caring and decent urban policy.

The presidency, of course, is just half the problem. Even with record retirements, the next Congress will have hundreds of members accustomed to dancing to lobbyists' tunes. Would a President Clinton be tough, and exert strong leadership over Congress? Would he have a broader vision of cities' indispensable place, and the potential disaster to the entire nation of continued social chaos in America's poorest neighborhoods?

It's hard to tell. As governor in Arkansas, Clinton pushed hard for his top programs, but often compromised on key points.

But imagine anything worse than the indifference, the political jockeying, the callous disregard of America's urban future, which official Washington is now demonstrating. I can't.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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