In Tough Times, Mikulski Gets The Goods The Political Scene

February 27, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In the no-pain, no-gain atmosphere of the Clinton era, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski may seem out of vogue.

The Maryland Democrat is a classic big-city liberal at a time when suburban centrists control the balance of power in Washington. And she's known as a skillful pork barrel spender during a period of growing taxpayer demands for government retrenchment.

"She's a porker," said a Republican lobbyist, using congressional slang for a big spender, "but she'll get what she wants from Clinton because he needs her vote."

Her critics, the senator says, just don't get it. She argues that it's people who use terms like "pork barrel" who are truly guilty of the old thinking.

"That was the vocabulary of 18 months ago," Ms. Mikulski said in an interview. "People understand there is a need to fix our highways and fix our bridges and that getting more money for projects like the FDA [complex to be built in Maryland] is not just about Maryland but the whole country."

In the argot of the Clinton administration, the kind of spending Ms. Mikulski advocates is known as "investment," and she's carrying the banner for a lot of the high-tech research that Mr. Clinton says is critical to a sound economy.

For example, Ms. Mikulski is pressing for creation of a federal agency that would add more than $75 million a year to an already badly swollen budget. Prepared in consultation with Vice President Al Gore, the National Environmental Technologies Agency would coordinate the award of up to $150 million worth of federal research grants to support the development of environmentally sound products.

"This is not a new bureaucracy," Ms. Mikulski said. "This would work through universities and consortiums" and be curtailed by a 5 percent ceiling on administrative costs.

"This is the new wave of the future," she said. "It might even get us back into manufacturing again."

In the six years since she moved from the House to the Senate, Fells Point's favorite daughter has converted herself from "a smokestack politician to a PC [personal computer] politician," said John Moag, a Baltimore-based lobbyist who has worked closely with the senator for more than a decade.

But she still finds ways to spend money.

The way she secured $200 million in new funds last year for the Food and Drug Administration is an example of how she operates.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies, Ms. Mikulski launched and won congressional approval for a plan to consolidate the offices in 34 FDA buildings in 11 locations throughout the Washington area into two campuses in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

She maintains that the move will not only streamline operations but save $1 million a year on rent. The project also happens to put new federal facilities in her home state.

"It's amazing the deals she comes up with to put more money in Maryland," said a former Bush administration lobbyist who lost a lot of battles over Mikulski spending schemes.

"But I guess if I were a citizen of Maryland I'd probably be glad that she was working for me."

Representing Maryland makes it easier for Ms. Mikulski to resist the budget-cutting contagion spreading through Democratic ranks in much of the House and Senate.

"There is a great reservoir of support in Maryland for government spending at all levels, federal, state and local because so many people here either work for the government or are otherwise connected to it," said Keith Haller, a Maryland-based pollster.

In fact, the only element in Mr. Clinton's economic plan that has inspired substantial resistance in Maryland so far is the president's plan to limit cost-of-living raises for federal workers, according to Ms. Mikulski and other members of the Maryland congressional delegation.

Not even Mr. Clinton's proposal to levy a new energy tax has sparked much of a protest.

Ms. Mikulski said she finds Marylanders are mostly concerned about just getting something done, particularly in health care.

"In all my years in Congress, I have never gotten as much mail -- seven duffel bags full all talking about this package," the senator said. "And they are full of ideas. Usually people just say they are for or against a proposal. This is the most content-rich mail I have ever gotten."

Although Ms. Mikulski feels no great urge to find further spending to lop from Mr. Clinton's budget plans, she is also prepared to surprise some folks who expect her to be a defender of the status quo.

For example, Mr. Clinton proposed the elimination of special purpose HUD grants for community development created by Ms. Mikulski's subcommittee in 1990. The elimination of the grants, used by members to fund everything from water towers to housing in their districts, would save $565 million over five years.

Ms. Mikulski resisted efforts by the Bush administration to cut the grants, but Mr. Clinton will get no quarrel about it from her now, the senator says.

"It was just a temporary measure to force [former Housing Secretary] Jack Kemp to release these funds," she said. "I support the end of earmarking."

Ms. Mikulski also said she has no plans to fight Mr. Clinton's proposal to dramatically scale back plans for a space station, another pet project of her subcommittee.

When she became chairman the subcommittee three years ago, Ms. Mikulski said, the space station project was "overweight and underdesigned" in terms of its scientific mission.

Ms. Mikulski argued that the manned mission to Mars be scrapped in favor of robots, and worked to define a new mission for the space station of advancing research on microgravity and biomedicine.

Mr. Clinton proposed that the $1.4 billion planned for the space station this year be cut by two-thirds as part of a redesign that he says would save $10.4 billion.

For now, Senator Mikulski said she backs the space station proposal as offered by the president.

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