AT urgent speed, Congress appears to be running in two radically
different directions: toward spending programs to address the
nation's urban crisis and toward a constitutional amendment
requiring a balanced budget.
This being an election year, both are by definition aimed at
proving to a weary electorate that Washington is capable of firm
The Los Angeles riots have sent Congress and the president
scurrying to new-old programs and have produced the first White
House invitation of the year for congressional leaders of both
parties to come and talk compromise on an urban agenda.
Emergency funding of $800 million to repair Los Angeles and
Chicago has bipartisan support and should be approved quickly.
The White House and Congress have found some common ground on
the longer-term agenda - such as the need to try urban "enterprise
zones" - but the specifics, cost, and source of funding remained
unclear after Tuesday's meeting.
Meanwhile, the budget deficit, creeping toward $400 billion, is
strangling the United States economy's ability to grow, many
members of Congress say. For the first time, longtime efforts to
require a balanced budget constitutionally - forcing Draconian cuts
in government spending - have a good shot at success.
But how can Congress contemplate doing both at the same time?
Some congressional observers respond with a business-as-usual
shrug. Others justify the apparent contradiction by saying that if
they could write policy themselves, they would find money for urban
America by cutting costly programs they believe are unnecessary -
and reduce the deficit at the same time.
"It's not necessarily an inconsistency," says Rep. Barney Frank
(D) of Massachusetts. "If you insist on spending billions to keep
US troops in Europe and $40 billion on a space station, then it's
inconsistent. But if we would do the right thing and reduce
military spending, then you can have both."
Both can be done
Dave Mason, a Congress-watcher at the conservative Heritage
Foundation, also does not see an unavoidable inconsistency in the
drive for a balanced budget and a revived urban agenda.
In urban policy, "money is not the issue at all," Mr. Mason
says. He points out that a lot of Housing and Ubran Development
Secretary Jack Kemp's proposals aim to be revenue-neutral by
redirecting existing resources.
"There's a fairly decent prospect the president and a majority
in Congress will pass something to appear active," he says. "If the
president puts out a bold program and pushes for it, there's a
chance it could be effective. But if he leads with compromise, it
won't go anywhere. …