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Hard Legislative Challenges Await Clinton's Second Term

Entitlements and campaign reform head a daunting list

November 07, 1996

A president's second term seldom goes as well as his first, and any legislative successes a second term produces usually come early on, before creeping lame-duckism saps the presidential political clout. If history is a guide, President Clinton has just about two years to stamp a legislative mark on his final term.

That could prove to be a major challenge. For one thing, the Republicans retain solid control in both the House and Senate. For another, the less than 50% of the vote by which Clinton was reelected falls short of putting him in a position to claim a popular mandate. Finally, the ethical and criminal investigations that hang over the White House promise to cut deeply into Clinton's concentration. Yet, for all these impediments and distractions, important public business remains to be done. Among Clinton's priorities should be these:

* Reforming entitlement programs, which will soon account for 60% of federal spending. Clinton doesn't have to wait until his inauguration on Jan. 20 to appoint knowledgeable and balanced bipartisan commissions, one to produce a plan for saving Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund from bankruptcy in the early years of the 21st century, another to propose how Social Security can meet its obligations to the coming huge wave of retirees. Rescuing entitlements from fiscal catastrophe is clearly possible, provided Republicans and Democrats work together to enact the politically painful changes that are needed. Given the compelling need for bipartisanship, Clinton might well think about asking Bob Dole to chair a Medicare commission.

* Loophole-riddled campaign finance laws, the subject of much tut-tutting by politicians during campaigns and of near-universal amnesia thereafter, should be targeted for sweeping reforms. But effecting changes to curb the corrupting power of private money on the political process is too important to be left to those whose first interest is protecting their own political futures. The only hope may lie in appointing a commission whose recommendations, like those of the commission on military base closings, would have to be accepted or rejected by Congress in full. Campaigns financed by special-interest money have become the great scandal of our democracy. Either the mess must be cleaned up or our political culture will be consumed by it.

* Clinton promised during the campaign to eliminate or soften the most ill-considered and punitive provisions of the new welfare reform law. That won't be easy to do, given the makeup of Congress, but some amendments to the law definitely are needed. Specifically, Clinton should seek to restore a degree of federal responsibility for needy children, particularly in seeing they are adequately fed; reinstate welfare eligibility for legal immigrants; provide incentives to employers to hire welfare recipients. It's clear that some of those on welfare are simply incapable of holding jobs because of physical, mental or psychological incapacity. They, and their children, must be provided for.

* Illegal-immigration efforts should now move from imposing tighter controls at the border--that process has begun--to cracking down on employers who find it profitable to hire illegal immigrants at below-market wages. The great lure for illegal entrants is jobs. Remove that enticement by getting tough on those who knowingly employ and exploit illegal immigrants and the problem could be significantly reduced.

No one should look for any big-ticket initiatives in Clinton's second term. Programmatically, the era of big government is indeed over, at least for now. Clinton and the Republicans are committed to balancing the federal budget within the next five years without new taxes. That means the rate of growth in government spending has to be sharply curbed. Federal spending will of course remain enormous, at around 20% of the gross domestic product. But funding for any new approaches will have to be found largely by cutting back on expenditures for established programs.

Clinton favors generous tax relief to finance college education, though without saying how he would pay for it. Exit polls around the nation on election day showed that educational quality is near the summit of public worries, as it should be. Clinton has talked a lot about education. Now he must propose ways to improve it without jeopardizing his commitment to balance the budget by 2002.

The president approaches a new term with the task of assembling a new team of top managers and advisors. Leon Panetta, who brought order to a chaotic White House when he became chief of staff two years ago, is preparing to leave. Clinton will also lose the calm and experienced counsel of Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Defense Secretary William Perry and the political acumen of Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor. These are likely to be the most keenly felt of many personnel changes at the start of Clinton's second term.

Tuesday's voting can be interpreted as evidence that the American people are generally comfortable with divided government and the inherent checks and balances it offers. But while the election may have ratified the status quo, it can hardly be regarded as an endorsement of stagnation. There is urgent public business yet to be done. It will take the cooperation and goodwill of both the President and the Congress to see it through.

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