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Family Matters in This House : Politics: All agree, there has been an increased emphasis on family issues since President Clinton took office. But what has been accomplished is open to debate.

August 18, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the middle of a meeting with the President last spring, domestic policy adviser William A. Galston quietly folded his papers, took a deep breath and walked out.

Galston had something more important to do, he explained in a note to the White House chief of staff. His son was playing a Little League game--and if the choice was between running the country and watching 10-year-old Ezra hit a triple, there was no choice.

To the charge of putting his family before his profession, Galston quipped, "I plead guilty."

The incident, in its small way, symbolizes an increased emphasis on family issues that many say occurred in Washington with the arrival of the Clinton Administration. This new visibility has continued, say those on the front lines, despite major foreign crises and domestic scandals such as Whitewater and Paula Jones. And even in the frenzy to reform health care and welfare, they say, family issues have remained central.

But the Administration's efforts have nonetheless drawn mixed reviews, often split along party lines.

"Clinton has definitely put his priorities where his mouth was," said Cathy Collette, director of the women's rights department at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington.

But after keeping close tabs on family-centered legislation on Capitol Hill, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) has concluded that "President Clinton's rhetoric outstrips his commitment." The programs Clinton has introduced have failed to provide direct benefits to most families, Johnson contended, explaining: "The bottom-line truth is that the best thing we can do for families is to increase the child tax deduction for families."

Discussion of a new emphasis on the family almost invariably begins with the Family and Medical Leave Act. Nine years in the making, the bill granting employees unpaid time off to care for babies or ailing relatives was signed into law weeks after Clinton took office.

"The steam had been building up for years," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan research organization in New York.

He credits Clinton with fulfilling a campaign promise to enact the legislation, but he cautioned: "The final bill was so watered down and had so many exemptions that maybe it was a bit of a symbolic advance rather than substantive."

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Family and child advocates also point to the debate over health-care reform as proof of a focus on family. "Universal coverage for all Americans is a tremendous family policy boon," said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women.

But, Moshenberg added, "The jury's still out on this one. When the heat is turned on in Congress, we have to wait to see if the President will pull out all the stops on universal care for families the way he did for NAFTA."

The welfare reform package that the White House has put before Congress also troubles some family specialists.

"We're worried about it," said Eve Brooks, head of the National Assn. of Child Advocates in Washington. She described current efforts to revamp this social aid package as "basically an anti-child approach to welfare reform that focuses on the parents, with the theory being that the bitter pill will somehow help the child."

Away from the glare of publicity, a number of other Clinton initiatives on behalf of the family have been proposed or enacted:

* The National Youth Service bill, enacted Sept. 22, 1993. Wendy Lazarus describes this legislation allowing college students to trade public service work for tuition as "sending the message to families that service is part of what everyday life should include."

* Expansion of the Head Start program to include services for children from birth to age 3. Dozens of schoolchildren were present on May 19, 1994, when Clinton signed this measure.

* The Family Preservation and Support Act, passed by Congress in August, 1993. Domestic policy adviser Galston called this "a program that was declared dead 1,000 times, and resurrected 1,001."

* The Earned Income Tax Credit, signed into law on Aug. 10, 1993. It provides tax credits for working families with incomes of less than $23,050 and at least one child living with them. More than 15 million families qualify for the credit, which averages between $1,000 and $1,500 annually, and which is available both to single and married parents.

* Goals 2000, a comprehensive education reform package that provides $700 million in federal funds in 1995 for states and school districts that meet new guidelines. It was signed into law on March 31.

* The federally funded Vaccines for Children program, set to begin Oct. 1.

* Pending domestic violence legislation.

* A recently signed executive order declaring the federal government's intention to be a "family friendly" workplace.

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