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Amid Capitol Hill's Torpor, a Week of Accomplishment

Historic activity, yes, but the biggest issues remain

August 04, 1996

No one had thought that much would be done in Washington during this presidential election year, but Congress has just wrapped up a historic week.

The Republicans and Democrats took on welfare reform, health care and the minimum wage, each for their own political reasons. They will head home during the August recess to trumpet their achievements. Like it or not, the practical effect of their legislative initiatives will be change across America. And nowhere will that change be more profound than in California.

As Congress pats itself on the back for getting something done, members should not get carried away with their self-congratulations. After all, the Republican-controlled Congress and the president left untouched the two biggest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, two emotional issues that directly affect middle-class voters and desperately need reform.

The White House and congressional politicians concentrated their horse trading on exploiting issues like welfare on which there was broad agreement on the need for change. The president was anxious to fulfill his campaign promises, especially the one about ending welfare "as we know it." The Republicans, worried about their reelection prospects with so little achieved under their "contract with America," needed to rack up some accomplishments. Both sides wanted to go home with some dramatic results, and hardball gamesmanship delivered the package.

So millions working at the minimum wage will get an increase because Republicans backed the Democratic proposals in exchange for some tax cuts. After much jockeying on health care, the two sides reached agreement on health insurance, ensuring that workers will not lose coverage when they change jobs.

When it came to welfare, it was the Democrats who were backed into a corner. The president had vetoed two welfare bills and the Republicans were ready to send him another to reject so they could crow about it in the fall presidential election campaign. But then Republicans, openly nervous about Bob Dole's low standing in the presidential campaign polls and unwilling to be branded as purveyors of more legislative gridlock, started trading with Democrats.

The welfare compromise was fashioned largely on the backs of nonvoters--legal immigrants. The president has said he supports the newly approved bill, which puts states in control of welfare programs, imposes a five-year limit on benefits and reduces spending by about $56 billion over six years, mostly by cutting benefits to legal immigrants, who account for only 5% of federal social spending. California, which is home to about 40% of all legal immigrants in the United States (half of those in California live in Los Angeles County), could face $1 billion in additional costs as a result of the cutoff. So the congressional achievements, as notable as they are, are not without downsides.

The nation now embarks on a journey of change.

The Congress and President Clinton got some real work done last week; let's hope that in the next congressional session the nation's leaders will possess the courage and resolve to do more than nibble around the edges. They should face up to the formidable task of reforming the biggest entitlement programs.

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