Sarbanes' 'New Deal' stance Welfare: Some looked at Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' vote against the welfare reform bill and said he won't be running again -- not so, says his staff.

The Political Game

August 06, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

SOME MAY CALL HIM the last New Dealer, the last true Democrat.

Others will look at Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' vote against a welfare reform bill last week and say, "He's not running again."

Not so, says his staff. He simply refuses to abandon his critical faculties in a vortex of ill political winds.

His Democratic colleague from Maryland, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, joined 77 others in the Senate to support the bill -- 21 voted no. And all but one of Maryland's representatives in Congress -- newly elected Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of the 7th District -- were in the majority as the House measure passed 328-101.

It is doubtless true that the rush to reform is driven by public opinion polls. It is also driven by alarming facts: In New York City, 66 percent of births are now illegitimate, a factor attributed by many to the welfare culture.

"It has hit us like a cyclone," said social scholar and New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "and in our confusion we are doing mad things." The bill's premise, he said, is that adults can be reformed "by making their children as wretched as possible."

More measured as always, Sarbanes says the bill breaks a contract, not just with the poor, but working families as well. In times of economic downturn, he said, welfare rolls always rise. In the past, states have been able to rely on the federal government to cushion the shock. No longer. This bill gives each state a finite sum to cover its welfare spending. When it's gone, it's gone.

"The bill has a [$2 billion] contingency fund, but it is completely inadequate," Sarbanes said.

"In our nation's most recent recession during the Bush administration, the federal share of welfare spending increased 36 percent or $7.2 billion over four years. That is four times the contingency fund."

During that same time, he said, the number of children living in poverty increased by 35 percent, and unemployment rose from 5.3 percent to a high of 7.7 percent.

Even when the federal contribution increased automatically, states have consistently insisted: "We can't handle the situation." Sarbanes wondered what the states will be saying under the new system.

Governors and legislatures will have the option to take up some of the slack. But most, including Maryland's, have little financial ability or political will to do so.

Many of Sarbanes' fellow liberals were more anxious to show their reform credentials -- to trumpet the reforming they had done in anticipation of federal changes -- than to argue for a system that recognizes the ups and downs of the business cycle. All their recent emphasis was on dealing with deadbeats and combating aspects of the current system that help to sustain generational dependency.

"The consequences of reform," Sarbanes predicted when the U.S. Senate vote was taken, "will be such that we will rue this day."

Many seemed certain they would rue the day -- if they voted as Sarbanes did.

"This bill is not perfect," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from the 5th District, who faces an articulate conservative in his bid for re-election this year. "We must create a different kind of social safety net which will uphold the values our current system destroys. It must require work, it must demand responsibility."

Even Maryland Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn of the 4th District, one of the state's two African-American congressmen, voted for the bill. He, too, lamented its shortcomings. But he found the push toward self-sufficiency irresistible.

As for Sarbanes, he is not up for re-election until 2000 -- and, though whispering about his departure might resume, nothing in this welfare vote should be read as a resignation announcement, said his press secretary.

Republican challenger urges 'TV Cares' debates

Felines in distress get more attention from the media than do races for the U.S. Congress, according to the GOP's 3rd District challenger, Pat McDonough. "The Baltimore TV market," he said, "is a vast wasteland when it comes to political issues and campaign coverage."

His solution? A two-point "TV Cares" program in which all the outlets, including cable and public, would put together one-hour debates for each of the Baltimore area congressional races. He also suggests each channel should provide a half-hour of free time for the candidates.

Pub Date: 8/06/96

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