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CONGRESS / BUDGET BLUES : When the Subject Is Money, Being a Grown-Up Is No Fun

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The second-graders of Mrs. Hensley’s class at Robert B. Tully Elementary School are sure in their innocence that congressmen are powerful enough to do anything. But this is the time of the annual budget struggle when most congressmen feel just the opposite: frustrated, hog-tied, weary and weak.

Even as some congressmen at a subcommittee hearing a day earlier leafed through a hand-drawn and hand-lettered book prepared by Mrs. Hensley’s Louisville class for Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.), other congressmen wondered out loud what they and their colleagues were up to.

But the second-graders had no doubt. Each page clearly showed what each child would do if he or she had the omnipotence of a member of the House of Representatives.

“If I were a congressman,” wrote one child, “I would pass a law to stop people from cursing.” “If I were a congressman,” another wrote, “I would pass a law to stop people from chewing tobacco.” “If I were a congressman,” wrote a second-grader, “I would pass a law that no one should sit on each other in a car.”

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But the real world of passing legislation is more complex and cruel and, in the case of a 1991 budget resolution passed by the House Tuesday, perhaps not very meaningful.

“It’s kind of hard to get the juices moving,” Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) said, “when we all know we are just going through the motions.”

No matter what the Senate does, everyone agrees that the real budget will have to be ironed out at a summit meeting between Bush and a handful of the top leaders of Congress.

Thomas attributes the morass to a lack of leadership all around. But he recognizes that it’s not an easy time to lead the way.

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“It’s not a question of getting up on a white horse with a sword and leading the charge against the enemy,” he said. “We’re talking about going down into a dark cave. . . . It’s Alphonse and Gaston. No one wants to be first.”

During debate, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) introduced a budget on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus that reduced defense spending drastically, raised taxes on the rich and increased social spending.

“This is what the Democratic budget ought to be,” he said. “This is not a way-out budget. This is not an off-the-wall budget.” But although many Democrats delight in the oratory of Dellums, few showed up to listen. And in the end, Democrats, kept in line by the reality of tax and budget politics, joined Republicans to defeat the Black Caucus budget.

The Republicans left themselves open to an embarrassment of their own as they declined to vote on a budget submitted by President Bush, apparently out of knowledge that it would be handily defeated if subjected to a vote.

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Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), his soft voice etched with irony, told reporters in his office: “I think if Republicans were proud of the President’s budget, anxious to have an opportunity to vote on it, clearly embracing it as their statement of what the budget should be, and wanting to take it into negotiations as a banner flying high, they would vote on it, and they would be delighted to vote on it.”

There weren’t any Republicans around when he spoke, but a reporter could still sense them squirming.

The pervasive air of frustration did not seem to be shared by Congressman Natcher, the recipient of the best work the Kentucky second-graders could muster. The 80-year-old Natcher came to Congress 36 years and seven months ago and, he says, “never missed a day, never missed a vote.”

In the old days, Congress appropriated money without passing a budget, and the total of all the appropriation bills became the budget. Some old-timers don’t want to have any part in the new budget process, says Natcher, “But I don’t accept that.”

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