HUD rolls out the pork full force Housing secretary deft at promoting Clinton with urban projects

October 26, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If the presidential race were a football game, Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, might be accused of trying to run up the score.

Although President Clinton appears headed for an easy victory, Cisneros has spent much of the past two months aggressively publicizing the administration's accomplishments and doling out money for urban projects as if his boss were trailing in the polls.

"In the last month or so, they've been doing a fantastic job in the old-style pork-barrel politics," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Having observed Cisneros over the past 3 1/2 years, Bond said HUD has never announced new programs at such a brisk pace.

Administration agencies "all have a charge to go out and help re-elect the president, but I think HUD certainly deserves a gold star for its efforts," he said.

Since Labor Day, Cisneros has announced $675 million in grants to fight homelessness and $716 million to rebuild public housing.

At the same time, HUD has:

Launched a transportation program to help inner-city poor commute to the suburbs for work.

Announced plans to provide computer training and Internet access to residents in 25 public-housing communities.

Touted a new bridal registry savings account program, whereby people can deposit cash wedding gifts to help newlyweds save for a down payment on a first home.

This week, HUD held an unusual conference call with reporters from around the country to announce that home ownership had risen 0.2 percent in the last quarter and to promote five initiatives to help more people buy homes.

Suggest for a moment that all this activity might have anything to do with a certain election in early November, and HUD officials seem surprised by the question.

The time it takes to approve the money and select the sites, Cisneros said in an interview, dictates that public housing grants be distributed during the fall.

In 1995, the agency handed out its homeless grants in mid-July. This year's delay, Cisneros said, was due to time lost from last winter's partial shutdown of the federal government.

"If we are [doing more], it is strictly attributable to the lateness of the appropriations," he said.

"We're a little behind because of the federal impasse."

Winning political points by making grants and touting popular programs is old hat in American politics and one of the great advantages of incumbency.

In the 1960s, when Congress increased Social Security benefits, recipients received a note with their first check saying the extra money was the result of legislation signed by the president. President Richard M. Nixon rankled some when he opposed increasing Social Security during his first term, signed the legislation anyway and then claimed credit for it.

"The weaving together of the administration of government business and the re-election of partisan incumbents has existed ever since there has been a bureaucracy and politics," said Martha Phillips, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan organization that focuses on reducing the federal deficit.

Ron Utt, a senior fellow who studies housing policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the practice is not illegal and is probably inevitable.

"This is a political town," he said. "These are political appointees, and they are part of a team."

But in this election year, Republicans say the administration has been particularly aggressive.

They cite the unusually rapid pace at which the Immigration and Naturalization Service is swearing in citizens and helping them register to vote. The administration has spent the past year trying to naturalize more than 1 million people.

Groups that monitor registration expect new citizens to favor Clinton because policies perceived as anti-immigrant, such as efforts to make English the nation's official language, are more associated with the GOP.

Republicans also point to the Agriculture Department's use of a Democratic pollster to conduct focus-group research. The pollster questioned people on the Family and Medical Leave Act and asked whether life was better or worse than it was five years ago. An Agriculture Department official apologized for the work, which Republican critics saw as overtly political.

When it comes to promoting the president, political observers say, few are as deft as the personable and articulate Cisneros. Under his leadership, HUD has developed an energetic press office from which aides communicate with journalists through fax machine, electronic mail and telephone, sometimes calling two or three times to encourage a reporter to attend a news conference.

The agency sometimes gets the desired result. A news conference this month, announcing grants to knock down public-housing projects, prompted at least 22 articles in major newspapers.

Utt of the Heritage Foundation called the bridal registry savings account program "just another gimmick."

Even so, it worked. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times published articles about it.

Pub Date: 10/26/96

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