Filibuster's Victims

NEAL R. PEIRCE

April 26, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Washington -- The solid phalanx of Republican senators who filibustered President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic stimulus package into oblivion had 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 was 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 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors,projects that might or might not have been selected for CDBG funding. Then, in a chart entitled, ''Pork Carry-Out,'' the paper listed the worst.

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.''

Republican senators seemed to detest these alleged abuses so heartily they were willing to sacrifice not just the CDBG funds but $450 million in special aid for the homeless, expanded funds for Head Start and a chunk of delayed highway and mass transit spending.

OK, let's say the critics had some points. Maybe this package wouldn't have stimulated the economy with all the 219,000 jobs President Clinton claimed. Maybe a few cities would have wasted dollars.

Perhaps the administration could have been less partisan about the stimulus, reaching out for moderate Republican support. Maybe this shouldn't have been sold as an economic stimulus package at all.

But still, the measure was important. It would have been a small down-payment to urban America -- a first step back from the 12 years of cold, short-sighted, 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.

Oddly enough, the Republican filibuster crew attacked the community development block grant program that one of their own, President Richard Nixon, authored two decades ago to free localities of micro-management 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 Washingtton control, or that they don't care?

CDBG does require citizen participation. This generally results, 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. If the new CDBG money had been approved, HUD and public interest groups planned to form peer review panels to apply pressure for accountable local processes.

The Republican attacks provoked Thomas Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to rebuke ''60-year-old white men on the floor of the Senate,'' with ample access to swimming pools and tennis courts, for criticizing mayors who seek funds for community recreation.

The same Republican congressional crew that this spring was calling urban aid a budget buster murmured scarcely an objection when 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. At the height of the CDBG program, Hartford, Conn., received $10 million under the program. This year, it's to get just $4.7 million, though it has close to 70 percent of its region's poor and the accompanying baggage of crime, drugs, welfare dependency, teen-age pregnancy and broken families.

Or take Seattle. Would it have been extravagant to use a one-time $9 million CDBG infusion to improve parks, libraries, senior centers and add $1 million to its neighborhood matching grants program?

Seattle had also hoped to garner $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.

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