Watch and Wait

January 06, 1995|By CARL T. ROWAN

Washington -- This was Death City Wednesday. The Republicans took over the 104th Congress with promises (or threats) of spending cuts of up to $450 billion over five years, slashing all social programs except Social Security.

Facing the end of life as Americans have known it for two generations, worried agriculture lobbyists burned bread in Lafayette Square near the White House, fighting off homeless people who wanted to eat it.

Working women picketed nearby, screaming that ''the lobbyists and the bums'' were jeopardizing the school-lunch program, forcing them to go back to the dehumanizing drudgery of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their children.

Savings & Loan whales and Wall Street sharks sipped champagne around the Federal Reserve, crying ''Free at last! Thank God we're free at last!'' from federal regulators.

A tearful band of advocates of term limits carried signs outside the House and Senate saying ''Only 12 More Years.''

Then I awakened from what was a dream -- a political comedy, not the nightmarish death drama that so many of my friends expected.

The Republicans had conquered Congress. But so what?

The 104th Congress opened the same way the First Continental Congress opened 221 years ago -- with a chaplain's prayer. So much for Republican promise to save money by wiping out the $289,000 a year in salaries for two chaplains and their assistants.

That illustrated that there are rules on invisible tablets of stone that forbid cuts in certain kinds of spending.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich might have his sharpest knife at the throat of the Department of Agriculture, which many consider a glaring example of bloat and waste. But how to pare it down?

Agriculture achieved Cabinet status in February 1889 when about 40 percent of the nation's laborers were farmers. Its staff and budget were minuscule. But in 1994, when only 2.5 percent of workers were farmers, the Department of Agriculture had 109,830 employees and an outlay of $60.8 billion.

The Agriculture department today represents huge corporate agricultural complexes, the merchants and families that benefit from food stamps, and crop supports and other benefits for politically active Americans. A lot of Republicans from the farm belt have a big stake in this department, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. So who's worried that Mr. Gingrich is going to abolish the Department of Agriculture?

The Department of Veterans Affairs got Cabinet status in 1989. In 1994 it had a staff of 263,834 and a budget of $36.5 billion. It has a powerful constituency, so it will be fun to watch the Republicans cut it down to size.

We first got a Cabinet-level Department of Education under President Carter in 1979. It has about 5,000 employees and an annual budget of over $31 billion. Wiping out the Department of Education may be relatively easy, but it will still be a bloody brawl.

Some people tremble as though they expect the days of Republican rule to be easy slaughters of America's poor adults, its pregnant teen-agers, its vulnerable children. But talk is a lot cheaper than firing chaplains or throwing homeless people away along with HUD. We may never see the electoral reforms or the banishment of lobbyists and their gifts to congressmen that some Republicans promise.

So let's watch and wait. It is not yet time for either lobbyists or liberals to jump off any bridges.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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