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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / JAMES BORNEMEIER

One Party's Boast Is Another Party's Sneer

August 11, 1995|JAMES BORNEMEIER

WASHINGTON — With the House heading out of town on its monthlong summer recess, it was time to take stock of the preceding seven months of frenetic legislative activity. The controlling Republicans had proposed an ambitious agenda and set a pace that had everyone staggering at the end. With this much energy expended, surely there were accomplishments to take credit for.

"The largest delegation in the House majority is acting like a team to respond to the state's top legislative priorities," trumpeted a press release last week from the Task Force on California, chaired by Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). It arrived on the letterhead of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had formed the task force early in the year to display his concern for the country's most populous state.

After all, California is still trying to regain its once-robust economic stride, its quirky elan, and anything that Congress can do is certainly welcome.

The release goes on:

"California's congressional leaders are reigning [sic] in onerous federal regulations, supporting private sector jobs, forcing a federal response to problems caused by illegal immigration, and ending the billions of dollars of unfunded mandates being foisted on the state and local governments."

Included is a list of 17 task force accomplishments, ranging from emergency funds for earthquake victims to proposals for welfare reform. Other achievements on the list focus on the Endangered Species Act, emergency timber salvage and funding for the space station.

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A boon for California? It depends on who you ask. The trouble is that the majority of the California House delegation--Democrats, remember them?--object to many of the same accomplishments the Republicans are crowing about.

There is no consensus whatsoever among the California delegation as a whole that these are good omens for the state. What's one member's bold step forward is another's reeling lurch backward.

"It is long on hype, short on achievement," Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton) answered in a written Democratic reply. "The Speaker's task force cannot distinguish between scoring short-term 'political victories' from enacting long-term lasting change for the better."

The Republican welfare proposals would allow states to develop new poverty programs without being tied to regulations that require the same amount of federal money to be spent as the year before.

Democrats object, saying such a plan would open the door for states to reduce benefit programs drastically.

Likewise, plans to scale back the Endangered Species Act and allow more timber harvesting are to Republicans common sense changes to troubling federal prerogatives, but they are opposed by many Democrats as troubling retreats from present environmental policies.

Of course, there are issues that naturally attract support from both sides--like emergency funds for disaster victims.

But even here Democrats pointed out that under the Republican regime disaster aid is now a pay-as-you-go proposition that could snatch funds from other California programs.

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No. 1 on the task force's list was legislation, already signed by President Clinton, to relieve state and local governments of unfunded federal mandates. It was a tenet of the GOP's "contract with America."

Calling the list "self-congratulating," Brown, the Democratic dean of the state House delegation, noted that "it was only made possible with strong bipartisan, not just Republican support, and [it] originated with a California Democrat." Rep. Gary A. Condit [D-Ceres] pushed hard for unfunded mandate legislation in the last Congress.

Oh please, Dreier responds. "We've done more for California in the new Congress than our state has seen in decades. California has once again become a force in Congress. As much as the California Democrats in the House want to deny it, California is no longer being pushed around."

Only two bills--the unfunded mandates and the supplemental appropriations bills that contain the disaster aid--have been enacted into law. The rest of the initiatives must await Senate action and the horse-trading that goes on in conference committees that try to work out differences between House and Senate versions--if they get that far.

With Clinton and Congress heading to a potential government shutdown over veto threats of spending bills, the end of this session is utterly unpredictable.

The task force list is an earnest political document, but it is full of "ifs."

"Interim reports are just that," said Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We don't know whether this Congress is going to be one of the most revolutionary or one of the least productive in history. Nothing has happened yet, and we won't know how productive this legislative session is until December. All interim reports should be taken with a grain of salt."

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