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Bush Circumventing Congress on Domestic Policy

The Nation

His goals such as advancing the faith-based initiative cheer his core constituency. He looks to broaden GOP's appeal.

December 15, 2002|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Seeking to reinforce support from his core constituency, while at the same time possibly widening the Republican Party's appeal, President Bush is sidestepping Congress to advance the domestic policy issues he brought to the White House two years ago.

Though the potential war with Iraq and hoped-for improvement of the economy are likely to be the most important elements determining Bush's political future, the domestic issues are the ones that are important to the president's longtime backers -- and that have come to a stalemate in Congress.

So, finding ways to act without requiring congressional approval, Bush moved last week on one of those programs, his faith-based initiative. Using his executive powers, the president ordered the government to make it easier for religious organizations to win government funds for charitable projects.

The program has been stalled in Congress, and Bush's order did not put it fully into effect. For instance, congressional approval still will be required for tax incentives to spur private charitable contributions for religious groups that deliver social services.

But with Bush's action, federal agencies cannot discriminate against religious-based charities in awarding federal grants and can allow federal dollars to go to social service agencies that use an applicant's religion as a factor in deciding whom to hire.

On the environmental front, where Bush also has run into roadblocks in Congress, he has taken several steps in recent weeks.

He implemented a policy to increase logging in national forests, enacting through orders he sent to the U.S. Forest Service key elements of a program that has languished in Congress since last summer. He has given industry a long-desired increase in its flexibility in dealing with federal clean-air requirements, bringing applause from the forestry products sector.

He also proposed a slight increase in fuel economy ratings for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks -- a step the government has not taken in six years. Environmentalists called it insufficient; automakers said it would be difficult to do.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush was ready to act on "a very aggressive" domestic policy agenda in coming months.

However, on many pending issues, Bush's ability to act on his own will be more limited. And they are likely to engender at least as much controversy, even when the Republican Congress takes office next month.

These include a program to help the elderly pay for prescription drugs and reworking the 1996 welfare laws to increase the amount of time welfare recipients must spend at work or in job-training programs.

Further off are questions about how Social Security will meet the demands on its trust fund over the next decade, when baby boomers begin to retire in huge numbers.

Few expect this critical issue will be resolved during the current presidential term, given the deep divisions over whether to introduce private investments into the federal retirement system.

Critics have asked whether -- between the overseas pressures of diplomacy, the military buildup in the Persian Gulf and the demands of economy at home -- the White House will have the political energy to carry out anything more than a limited domestic policy agenda in 2003.

Fleischer said that in addition to the costs of prescription drugs and remaining elements of the faith-based initiative, the administration's domestic agenda will include pursuing a ban on cloning, pension protections and drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Bush, expressing keen interest in energy legislation, said in Shreveport, La., this month that "an energy bill is good for our job base, it's good for economic security, and it's good for national security."

And the president frequently calls for legislation that would make permanent the $1.35-trillion, 10-year tax cut that he signed in 2001.

His domestic policy list is not extensive. But, said Bruce Reed, who was chief of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House during the Clinton administration, it might still be difficult to achieve.

Tensions with Iraq demand the president's attention and budget woes remain unresolved. So, Reed said, "social policy is inevitably going to be shoved aside because there isn't enough oxygen in the public debate" to support discussion of domestic issues.

But, arguing that the president needs to demonstrate domestic policy achievements if he runs for reelection, Thomas E. Mann, an expert on Congress and the presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said, "It would be a tremendous mistake if we failed to see the link to 2004."

As a result, he said, domestic policy is "moving up, rather than being crowded out."

The issue considered most ripe for action is the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly.

It was a topic of frequent debate during the presidential campaign in 2000 and grew in intensity during the congressional campaign this autumn.

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