Social Policy Next after the Budget

Article excerpt

No one on Capitol Hill has given much thought to the culture wars lately, but welfare reform, health care and jobs Will be issues again in 1996.

According to conservative social critic Ben Wattenberg, conservatives "have to put up or shut up" when it comes to crafting sound, compassionate social-welfare reform. But under the current tensions, wheeling-dealing and general heartburn of the budget battle, concerns about social policy have tended to take a seat in the back--way back.

"I haven't heard anything about social policy lately," says Ginny Koops, a senior staffer on the Senate Finance Committee, "but of course that doesn't mean anything. We've just been buried under this budget avalanche!'

More succinct is an aide to Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "For crying out loud!" the aide tells Insight, laughing. "With everything going on here now, I have absolutely no idea when we'll take up social policy--next year? Holy moly!"

Some of the same old battles still are being fought about social issues, but they involve bombs of rhetoric and missiles of goosegrease. As Congress and the White House bicker about the twin Bs--budget and Bosnia--both continue to mount only rhetorical campaigns on social spending. Chief among these is the battle about Medicare and Medicaid which has been reduced to a purely semantic struggle about whether the reductions should be called "cuts" (as in "cuts in services to the poor and elderly," the Democrats' preferred term) or "reductions in growth," (the choice of Republicans). The debate about welfare reform and block grants has taken a similar turn, with much exchanging of slogans.

For William Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, "The No. 1 priority is tax reform," explains Koops. "This is going to be our top issue, and we have the [House] speaker's support on it."

Over on the House side, Rep. John Porter, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, plans to focus on education and job training. Porter wants to consolidate the 240 or so government programs that deal with education and job training into one cohesive organization with an emphasis on outcomes. In a departure from the slash-and-burn approach that some of his GOP colleagues seem to favor, Porter wants to "downsize programs that don't work and increase funding for those that do," a GOP staffer tells Insight.

Porter's pet project is the job Cor-ps, "the only program that really seems to work," the staffer says. He adds: "Many people think it's the worst program, ironically, but that's only because Job Corps actually measures itself and reports on its results, something the other programs never do. So naturally it's going to look worse because the others don't bother to show their failures, and even the best program has failures." The Job Corps, which functions under the auspices of the Labor Department, is an intensive, two-to-24-month residential education and training program for troubled youths between ages 16 and 24. It serves more than 63,000 clients a year and has received praise from congressmen on both sides of the aisle. Of course, "none of this means anything until we know what the budget fallout is:" says the staffer. "Who knows if we'll be plowing the same ground or moving forward?"

Still, there are some on Capitol Hill who manage to lift their beleaguered heads above the stacks of budget printouts long enough to keep an eye on fresh ideas for social-policy reform. Of these, many think the most comprehensive and far-reaching--and thus the likeliest to result in long-lived debate--is the Project for American Renewal, put together by Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. "This is going to be our biggest contribution" to this year's agenda, says a staffer in Coats' office. The senator plans to push his project through once the budget battles have ended. …