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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / ROBERT W. STEWART

A Head-On Collision on Transit Policy

September 24, 1993|ROBERT W. STEWART

WASHINGTON — In the annals of historic congressional battles, the dispute between Reps. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) and Bob Carr (D-Mich.) will not find its way onto the same parchment that records the Compromise of 1850 or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Some historians, in fact, probably will regard it as something akin to the great food fight of 1993.

But, in the short view, the summer-long imbroglio between the House's two most powerful arbiters of transportation policy has been a ripsnorter--one that offered the public an unusually clear view of how Congress works.

Hanging in the balance was $11 million in general California transportation aid, and another $28 million earmarked for the Bay Area's subway system.

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At the heart of the feud, which began in June, is the distinction between the only two subspecies recognized on Capitol Hill--Appropriators and Authorizers. Their relationship is something akin to the one between the Montagues and the Capulets.

The 61-year-old Mineta, a nine-term veteran from San Jose, is the consummate Authorizer. In January, he took over the powerful House Committee on Public Works and Transportation, which sets, or authorizes, long-term spending limits for the major federal transportation programs.

Carr is an Appropriator. The 50-year-old congressman, who represents southeastern Michigan, became chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation when Mineta ascended to his new post.

Each year, Carr's subcommittee decides exactly how much money the federal government will spend during the following 12 months building new highways, fixing bridges and constructing transit systems.

Under House rules, appropriators are not supposed to spend money on any program or project not approved by the authorizers. In the past, the rule has been loosely enforced. This year, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. William H. Natcher (D.-Ky.), laid down the law.

All but one of the 13 appropriations subcommittees obeyed. The exception was Carr's panel. In the $13.7-billion transportation bill for fiscal 1994, Carr tucked in 58 unauthorized projects with a combined price tag of $305 million.

A third of the new projects were in Michigan.

Carr portrayed his action as a reform, saying the decision to include specific projects was based on a thorough economic analysis conducted by a panel of experts. When Congress rewrote the federal transportation laws in 1991, Carr argued that lawmakers gave short shrift to states such as Michigan. He said he intended only to correct the slight.

To finance the new, unauthorized projects, Carr took the money out of programs whose funds are passed out by formula. Carr's move would have cost California $11 million of the $25 million that had been set aside under the formulas. Forty other states also would suffer.

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Mineta viewed Carr's action not only as an attack on California, but as a naked grab for power in the delicately balanced congressional budget process. "It is time to stop violating House rules, undermining national policy and giving in to back-room deal-making," the normally circumspect Mineta bellowed on the House floor.

The public works chairman vowed to scuttle Carr's appropriations bill, and all the funding it contained, with a direct attack on the House floor.

House leaders told Carr to go back to the drawing board. But when he returned with new legislation in August, Carr had made only minor changes. One was to delete $28 million in funds for expansion of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, not far from Mineta's San Jose district.

That move further incensed Mineta, and set the stage for a stalemate that lasted until Wednesday.

In the end, House leaders threw up their hands and allowed Carr's bill to proceed to the House floor. Mineta mounted a series of parliamentary attacks on the unauthorized projects, and succeeded in stripping all of them from the bill. That money went back into the regular federal programs. And the money for BART went back into the bill.

Carr dismissed the episode as simply a matter of ego.

But Mineta's chief spokesman said it offers a more important lesson.

"Our entire system is based on a series of checks and balances," said Mineta aide Eric Federing. In this case, Federing said, "an attempt that had been made to short-circuit that process was challenged, and it was defeated. And that speaks well of how Congress is trying to reform itself."

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