AllPolitics - Pundits & Prose

D.C. Brigadoon -- Applaud It While It Lasts!

From Senior Washington Correspondent Charles Bierbauer

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Aug. 3) -- Take a long vacation and strange things can happen. Our flight home to Washington was turned back and where we finally landed seemed so out of character. Where was I?

It was a place called "Bipartisan." There, Republicans and Democrats lived in harmony -- of a sort -- and worked together toward agreement on major pieces of legislation.

It could have been "Brigadoon," that mythical land that appears for just a day once in a century. Bipartisan lasts for about a week once in a congressional session. It will vanish in the mist this weekend as Congress heads off for its August recess, a triathlon of vacations, party conventions and re-election campaigns.

Cooperation does not come easily to this town charged with partisanship. But while it lasted, wow!

  • Welfare reform passed and President Clinton agreed to sign it.
  • Health insurance reforms were agreed to and also headed for the White House.
  • The minimum wage hike was cleared, with some tax breaks added.
  • Standards for safe water -- the kind you drink -- were set just as the tap was about to run dry for federal assistance to municipal water authorities.

It could have been something in the water Congress was drinking. However, for weeks now Washington's water quality has been questionable. Residents have been urged to boil their water or avoid it. The water bill will bring millions to fix the pumps for D.C. water.

It could have been fear. Fear the voters might see the 104th Congress as a do-little Congress, especially after all its early bluster of Republican-led change and the much touted though marginally implemented "Contract with America." Fear the voters might see a president running for re-election falling short of his last election promises.

Those included a pledge to "end welfare as we know it." The welfare bill will do that. Six decades after the creation of welfare benefits as an entitlement to all those who qualify, the definition of need and dimension of aid are about to change.

The main changes:

  • Time limits on lifetime welfare benefits -- five years -- and on finding work -- two years.
  • Block grants -- states, not the federal government, will decide how to dispense aid using limited federal funds. States must continue to make their own contributions to welfare funding.
  • Hardship exemptions could be made for 20 percent of families -- the chronically unemployable.
  • Unmarried teen mothers under 18 must stay in school and live with an adult to receive payments.
  • Food stamp spending would be cut by $24 billion over six years. But the federal government would continue to provide stamps as an entitlement to those eligible.
  • Legal immigrants who do not become citizens would be ineligible for most federal benefits.
  • States could shift 30 percent of their welfare block grant to programs to protect and care for children, the most vulnerable part of the welfare population.

Welfare was the most bitter and difficult battleground. Who's most disappointed with the president's willingness to compromise? Liberal Democrats.

"It will leave many welfare recipients unemployable in the real world. It will leave their children ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed," said Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).

"The streets of our nation's cities may someday look like the streets of Brazil," said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) drawing an even more grim, and perhaps inaccurate, analogy. "You walk around there and you see children begging for money, begging for food and, even at 8 and 9 years old, engaging in prostitution."

There are worrisome predictions of what will happen to children as a result of this legislation. The Urban Institute estimates declining benefits will push more than 1 million children into poverty. A substantial number may fall through the crack as their parents lose benefits. There are some funds to provide for those children.

There are also ways to reduce the numbers. President Clinton says he'll seek to restore some of the food stamp funding and restore eligibility for non-citizens. That could reduce the imperiled number of children to about 700,000. As today's welfare recipients take tomorrow's jobs -- wherever they materialize -- their children should also be lifted from the poverty roles. The real numbers for these categories are only projections. Their prospects might improve over the five years of the plan.

Had the president blinked? Caved? Collapsed? Or cleverly worked the Republicans for the best he could get?

Had the Republicans bent him to their will? Primed their election rhetoric cannons?

Is that what matters?

What matters is that the art of compromise prevailed for a while in Washington. Gridlock cleared as it tends to when members of Congress want to get across town to National Airport heading home.

The denizens of Bipartisan held hands for a while. But the citizens of Brigadoon know the risks. Harry was the one dissenter who was going to blow the whistle on the rhapsody of Brigadoon. Washington has no shortage of those willing to shatter its illusions, especially of bipartisanship.

"At the beginning of this very Congress, some wanted to put poor children in orphanages," the president said, taking a dig at House Speaker Newt Gingrich, even as he was announcing his agreement to the welfare reform.

"The only problem we have had is that a lot of our good work has been subject to vacillation by the president and, in far too many instances against the interest of the American people, vetoed from the president," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said during a self-congratulatory Republican news conference.

In the rush to action after the TWA and Olympic tragedies there were calls here for tougher anti-terrorism measures. The president, who bears responsibility for the nation's security, sent Congress a list of steps he wanted. Many were items that were stripped out of the counter-terrorism legislation earlier in the year -- authority for roving wiretaps and taggants to trace explosive materials.

The discussions started in bipartisan measure. It did not last long. The bill was off and on all week with, at week's end, only a watered-down version surviving. No wiretap authority survived. Only another study of taggants. Another "blue ribbon commission."

And the members of Congress headed for the airports.

There, if their flights are anything like ours, they will spend a lot of time. Hours of delay and missed connections on the outward leg. A mechanical malfunction on the way home that brought us back to Detroit for another plane. And that was all before the short, tragic flight of TWA 800 which promises to make airline travel take longer, but presumably end more happily.

Happy endings, after all, should not be saved only for fiction.

It rained all seven days we were at the Colorado ranch. But we never missed a ride, or a meal.

One afternoon the head wrangler Dave and I huddled under a couple of pine trees while hail beat down on our hats -- his more weather-beaten than mine -- and our horses' manes. We agreed there were worse things in life. Rain at the beach. A gloomy day at the office. Endless waits in airports.

It was a reality much more satisfying than the ephemeral illusions of Brigadoon or some place only briefly called Bipartisan.

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