Clinton hearing same old story from Congress

DAN RODRICKS

March 02, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

My old pal Joey Amalfitano, the thinking man's couch potato, suddenly rose up, pushed away the blanket of Sunday newspapers spread across his belly and pointed to a box in the paper called "Votes In Congress."

"Perfect," Joey said. "Look at this. Here's a perfect example of what Clinton's up against. Just like I've been saying. Look."

Joey was probably right. One week of voting in Washington by Maryland's congressional delegation provides examples of what we're up against -- the same old gridlock of political partisanship, a Senate and House that, for the most part, have not seen the color change in the mood ring of the nation.

This one week of voting on important roll-call votes supports what Joey Amalfitano says: "Democrats don't know how to cut the budget and Republicans don't have a heart for anyone who ain't rich."

What we see, more often than not, is party-line voting.

How else to explain Rep. Helen Delich Bentley's vote against extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed? She might have done this as a tribute to another Republican, George Bush, who opposed extending benefits because doing so, in 1991 and 1992, would have suggested that the recession was not over.

Today, there are about 2 million Americans who have exhausted their first 26 weeks of benefits. And there is plenty of evidence that, though the nation is in slow economic recovery, people are staying unemployed longer than in previous recessions. In Bentley's own district, grown men, some of them business executives, weep because they can't find jobs comparable to the ones they lost.

So Congress decided to extend benefits by adding $5.7 billion in emergency spending to the deficit. Bentley, along with Maryland's newest Republican representative, Roscoe Bartlett, were the only members of the delegation to vote against it. To his credit, Eastern Shore Republican Wayne Gilchrest voted with the Democratic majority. The measure prevailed by a vote of 254-161.

I'm all for cutting spending and don't think President Clinton went far enough in proposing cuts as part of his economic package. But hurting the unemployed, by denying that they exist or have a need, isn't the way to do it.

Cutting unnecessary spending is, however.

Consider elimination of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging.

It seems we have two committees on aging -- one in the Senate and one in the House. Neither committee has legislative powers. They hold hearings. They placate the American Association of Retired Persons. The Senate committee has an annual budget of $1.1 million.

Wouldn't the nation be adequately served with one joint committee on aging?

And wouldn't support of this bill have provided members of the Senate, immersed as they are in the grand matters of state and earth, with an easy opportunity to show they are serious about cutting spending? Kill a committee, make the masses happy. Such an idea was up for a vote last week.

"A million bucks isn't much, but it's something," Joey Amalfitano said.

Alas, both Maryland senators, Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, voted to keep the committee.

I'm sure they had inside-the-Beltway explanations. Or perhaps they were very busy the day of the vote and simply took the leadership's recommendation, voted the party line. Whatever. The vote shows a partisan mind-set, a kind of conventional thinking about things, a tendency to lean toward status quo at a time when the nation clamors for change. And Mikulski and Sarbanes are down for $1.1 million in unnecessary legislative spending.

They also signed on for a $113 million, two-year budget for Senate committee staffs -- distinct, that is, from the senators' own staffs. This budget figure represents a 4 percent cut in spending. Four percent ain't much, but it's something.

On the other hand, most beyond-the-Beltway Americans rightly assume that legislative staffs are already bloated and assume that they could survive more serious cuts.

There was a proposition to cut the committee staff budget by $10 million. Mikulski and Sarbanes voted against it.

"Like I said," Joey Amalfitano said.

Like he said.

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