Washington. -- The solid phalanx of Republican senators seeking to filibuster President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic stimulus package into oblivion has been having a field day finding little specks of possible pork in the proposal and then declaring the whole exercise a boondoggle.
The suggested one-time injection of $2.5 billion into the community development block grant (CDBG) program is the whipping boy of choice. The editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal combed through a 4,000-item "ready-to-go" public works list compiled some months ago by the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- projects that cities might or might not eventually select for CDBG funding.
Then, in a chart entitled "Pork Carry-Out," the paper listed the worst it could find. Examples: graffiti abatement in Highland, Calif.; a swimming pool in White Plains, N.Y.; building three bike paths in Modesto, Calif.; renovating a playground in Wheeling, W.Va.; converting a brewery to an industrial park in Minneapolis and funding the "art ark" (housing for poor artists) in San Francisco.
The Journal's list provided instant ammunition for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who hurried to call the CDBG package "old-fashioned pork barrel. We are talking about ice skating rink warming huts, boat docks, biking paths."
The Republican senators seem to detest these alleged abuses so heartily they're willing to sacrifice not just the CDBG monies but the stimulus package's $450 million in special aid for the homeless, expanded funds for Head Start, extended benefits for the jobless and a chunk of delayed highway and mass transit spending.
OK, let's say the critics have some points. Maybe this package won't stimulate the economy with all the 219,000 jobs President Clinton claims. Maybe a few cities will waste some dollars. Perhaps the administration could have been less partisan about the stimulus, reaching out for moderate Republican support before GOP senators got their backs up. Maybe, from the start, it shouldn't have been sold as an economic stimulus package at all.
But still, the measure is important. It's a small downpayment to urban America. It's a first step back from the 12 years of cold, shortsighted, intentional national disinvestment which culminated in the failure of Congress and President Bush to respond in any meaningful way to last year's Los Angeles riots.
Now, oddly enough, the Republican filibuster crew is attacking the community development block grant program that one of their own, President Richard Nixon, authored two decades ago to free localities of micromanagement by a meddlesome federal government. The price of giving localities freedom, of course, is that some may foul up. Are the Republicans telling us they'd prefer inside-the-Beltway control? Or that they simply don't care?
CDBG does require fairly extensive citizen participation -- generally resulting, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros notes, in so much competition that few ''frivolous projects'' get funded. Seventy percent of CDBG funds must be used to benefit low- and moderate-income people. And if the new CDBG money is approved, HUD and public interest groups plan to form peer review panels to apply additional pressure for quality, accountable local processes.
The Republican attacks last week provoked Thomas Cochran, ZTC executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to rebuke ''60-year-old white men on the floor of the Senate'' -- officials with ample access to swimming pools and tennis courts themselves -- for criticizing mayors who seek funds for community recreation. ''It's better to have pools of water than pools of blood, better to shoot baskets than bullets,'' says Cochran.
The same Republican congressional crew that now calls urban aid a budget buster murmured scarcely an objection when swimming pools and all manner of expensive recreational facilities were approved as part of grotesquely oversized military budgets of the '80s. And when, one can ask, has the same bunch decried mortgage deductions for million-dollar home owners, or the hundreds of billions we're spending on savings and loan bailouts, or subsidized grazing fees and cut-rate federal water rates for big-time farmers?
Aid to cities has declined dramatically in recent years. At the height of the CDBG program, for example, Hartford, Conn., received $10 million under the program. This year, it's to get just $4.7 million -- even though Hartford has close to 70 percent of its region's poor and must, as the Hartford Courant's Tom Condon notes, carry the accompanying baggage of ''crime, drugs, welfare dependency, teen-age pregnancy, hunger and broken families.''
Or take Seattle. Will it be extravagant if the stimulus package is approved and the city uses its one-time $9 million CDBG infusion to improve parks, libraries, senior centers and add $1 million to its neighborhood matching grants program?
Seattle also hopes to garner from the stimulus package $1 million for expanded housing and services for the homeless, $1 million for a summer Head Start program for disadvantaged 4-year-olds, $500,000 to improve nutritional programs for children and pregnant women, $3.4 million for 2,000 summer jobs for youth, $1.6 million for services to AIDS victims, $1 million for immunizations.
If these aren't critically important expenditures for a nation to make, then what are?
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.