Federal power, spending expand

Recession, attacks drive new urgency to boost economy

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

October 02, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Just five years after President Bill Clinton declared it to be over, the era of big government appears to be back.

The terrorist attacks on the United States have reversed a decade of fiscal restraint and created a climate for a broad expansion of federal responsibilities and powers that would have seemed unimaginable a month ago.

Spending limits are out. In fact, President Bush will meet today with congressional leaders to try to shape an economic stimulus package of spending and tax cuts that could total $100 billion.

And probably all of that sum would come out of Social Security money that was previously seen as untouchable.

Some of that money - and perhaps billions more - would be used for purposes that the federal government has seldom undertaken on such a grand scale.

These include health care for laid-off workers and the creation of jobs to upgrade public works, such as hospitals, roads and water supplies.

Separate legislation scheduled for votes this week would put federal law enforcement officers - as well as National Guardsmen in many states - in charge of airport security.

Up to 28,000 employees might have to be added to the federal work force if Congress decided that private employees were no longer acceptable as passenger or baggage screeners.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft appears to be on the verge of winning broad new authority to investigate terrorist activity, though some Republicans have joined with liberal Democrats to block elements that they say could erode civil liberties.

"I think that everybody now believes that we are in a national emergency, that we are probably in an economic downturn or recession, and that we face all of these challenges at the same time, and the government has to act in the interests of the people to move us in the right direction," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the Democratic leader in the House.

Sign of a new era

The unflinching cooperation of this would-be Bush rival with the Republican White House is seen as among the clearest signs of a new era, in which lawmakers recognize that their constituents are looking to them for help at a fearful time.

In fact, Democrats have often seemed more helpful than some of Bush's fellow Republicans who have been alarmed by what appears to be the sudden growth of federal authority and spending.

"I don't want to see people in Congress take advantage of the situation to say, `Well, the spending caps are gone, so we can spend whatever we want to,'" said Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate Republican whip.

Nickles said he was aghast when the president quickly agreed - without consulting Republican leaders - to double a $20 billion emergency measure that had been enacted days after the attacks, because New York's mostly Democratic lawmakers argued that their damaged city needed $20 billion just for itself.

Even more alarming, Nickles said, was a victims' compensation package enacted a week later as part of the $15 billion airline bailout bill.

The bill set up a federal fund to be run by a special master, who would adjudicate claims on behalf of people injured or killed in the attacks and decide on their awards.

"We moved too quickly on that; we did that in one day," Nickles said. "No one knows what is in that bill, and no one knows how much it's going to cost, and it has the federal government holding the bag.

"It gives enormous power to the special master: big-time power, billions of dollars, ultimate responsibility for compensating all of the victims."

"I strongly objected, but I didn't win," Nickles said.

He didn't win because the vast majority of lawmakers - even many of Nickles' usual Republican allies - are under great pressure to show a united front to the world now that the American homeland has come under enemy attack.

Striving for unity

Rep. Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip and an ideological soulmate of Nickles, has found himself in the unusual spot of trying to quell conservative voices he agrees with, for the sake of unity.

"Like all conservatives, he believes that you want to keep government out of your homes and your business, and you don't spend a dollar more than you have to, except when it comes to war," said Emily Miller, a spokeswoman for DeLay.

In some ways, the prospect of recession has generated almost as much worry in Washington as the war has, and there appear to be few limits on what lawmakers are willing to consider to combat it.

Congress has spent $55 billion in recent weeks on disaster and bailout packages. An economic stimulus measure that lawmakers are drafting with the White House would add up to $100 billion more.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic whip, has said Congress' top priority should be the creation of jobs.

So he's shopping around a package of public works spending that would cost $30 billion to $40 billion.

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