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Family Matters in This House : Politics: All agree, there has been an increased emphasis on family issues since President Clinton took office. But what has been accomplished is open to debate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the middle of a meeting with the President last spring, domestic policy adviser William A. Galston quietly folded his papers, took a deep breath and walked out.

Galston had something more important to do, he explained in a note to the White House chief of staff. His son was playing a Little League game--and if the choice was between running the country and watching 10-year-old Ezra hit a triple, there was no choice.

To the charge of putting his family before his profession, Galston quipped, “I plead guilty.”

The incident, in its small way, symbolizes an increased emphasis on family issues that many say occurred in Washington with the arrival of the Clinton Administration. This new visibility has continued, say those on the front lines, despite major foreign crises and domestic scandals such as Whitewater and Paula Jones. And even in the frenzy to reform health care and welfare, they say, family issues have remained central.

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But the Administration’s efforts have nonetheless drawn mixed reviews, often split along party lines.

“Clinton has definitely put his priorities where his mouth was,” said Cathy Collette, director of the women’s rights department at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington.

But after keeping close tabs on family-centered legislation on Capitol Hill, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) has concluded that “President Clinton’s rhetoric outstrips his commitment.” The programs Clinton has introduced have failed to provide direct benefits to most families, Johnson contended, explaining: “The bottom-line truth is that the best thing we can do for families is to increase the child tax deduction for families.”

Discussion of a new emphasis on the family almost invariably begins with the Family and Medical Leave Act. Nine years in the making, the bill granting employees unpaid time off to care for babies or ailing relatives was signed into law weeks after Clinton took office.

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“The steam had been building up for years,” said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan research organization in New York.

He credits Clinton with fulfilling a campaign promise to enact the legislation, but he cautioned: “The final bill was so watered down and had so many exemptions that maybe it was a bit of a symbolic advance rather than substantive.”

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Family and child advocates also point to the debate over health-care reform as proof of a focus on family. “Universal coverage for all Americans is a tremendous family policy boon,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women.

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But, Moshenberg added, “The jury’s still out on this one. When the heat is turned on in Congress, we have to wait to see if the President will pull out all the stops on universal care for families the way he did for NAFTA.”

The welfare reform package that the White House has put before Congress also troubles some family specialists.

“We’re worried about it,” said Eve Brooks, head of the National Assn. of Child Advocates in Washington. She described current efforts to revamp this social aid package as “basically an anti-child approach to welfare reform that focuses on the parents, with the theory being that the bitter pill will somehow help the child.”

Away from the glare of publicity, a number of other Clinton initiatives on behalf of the family have been proposed or enacted:

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* The National Youth Service bill, enacted Sept. 22, 1993. Wendy Lazarus describes this legislation allowing college students to trade public service work for tuition as “sending the message to families that service is part of what everyday life should include.”

* Expansion of the Head Start program to include services for children from birth to age 3. Dozens of schoolchildren were present on May 19, 1994, when Clinton signed this measure.

* The Family Preservation and Support Act, passed by Congress in August, 1993. Domestic policy adviser Galston called this “a program that was declared dead 1,000 times, and resurrected 1,001.”

* The Earned Income Tax Credit, signed into law on Aug. 10, 1993. It provides tax credits for working families with incomes of less than $23,050 and at least one child living with them. More than 15 million families qualify for the credit, which averages between $1,000 and $1,500 annually, and which is available both to single and married parents.

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* Goals 2000, a comprehensive education reform package that provides $700 million in federal funds in 1995 for states and school districts that meet new guidelines. It was signed into law on March 31.

* The federally funded Vaccines for Children program, set to begin Oct. 1.

* Pending domestic violence legislation.

* A recently signed executive order declaring the federal government’s intention to be a “family friendly” workplace.

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Still, the Clinton Administration’s first 18 months have been “very bad for the family generally,” said Gary Bauer, who served on the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Ronald Reagan. He took particular issue with this Administration’s push to “zero-fund the only federally funded program that helps parents and teachers teach abstinence.”

Many other experts in family policy say that while the family, vintage 1994, may not be basking in the legislative spotlight, it certainly is more prominent than it used to be.

“In all seriousness, you have to ask, ‘compared to what?’ ” said Amitai Etzioni, author of “The Spirit of Community” (Simon & Schuster, 1994) and founder of the Communitarian Network.

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“Compared to where we were before, we’ve made important steps forward. Compared to where we were before, the government’s heart is definitely in the right place,” said Etzioni, who is also on the faculty at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In Los Angeles, Wendy Lazarus, founder and director of a nonprofit policy research group called the Children’s Partnership, concurred.

“This Administration represents a clear departure,” Lazarus said. “For the first time in 15 years, I would say we have a leadership who is at least putting on the table issues affecting families and children.”

But Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the national office of the PTA, called family policy under the Clinton Administration “about as unrecognizable as our foreign policy.”

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David Liederman, head of the Child Welfare League of America, said that while many good things have happened in the name of the family since Clinton took office, “I’d feel an awful lot better if all of this good stuff was part of an overall plan. To tackle the problems of children and the family, you need a national vision--and that’s what’s missing.”

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Recent remarks by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala--which seemed to echo former Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous “Murphy Brown” speech--have drawn fire from factions who accused her of trivializing the growing problem of children born to unwed mothers.

From her office in Washington, Shalala said the comments were widely misunderstood. Rather than issuing a “Murphy Brown” speech of her own, she said, she was responding to a congressman’s query.

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On the broader question of how this Administration was responding to the increase in births to unmarried women--particularly teen-agers--Shalala said federal programs to reduce teen pregnancies had not proved effective.

“All the President can do, all we can do is to galvanize communities and community organizations,” Shalala said. She emphasized that nevertheless, “we are indeed putting resources into real family planning” efforts, including a pregnancy reduction program included in the new welfare package.

Shalala insisted that the ongoing flap over Whitewater or sexual harassment charges against President Clinton by Paula Jones had done nothing to distract the Administration from its work on family programs. DHHS employees were far too busy to spend their time watching the Whitewater hearings on television, Shalala said--and as for herself, while grabbing a quick solo lunch at her desk, she had turned on cartoons.

At the White House, Galston said work on the domestic policy council had been equally unaffected by presidential embarrassments or charges of misconduct. “We have just conducted our business to the best of our ability,” he said.

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Yet Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, for one, thinks that for all the good intentions, many potential services for families had been overlooked.

“What about opportunities through changes in the tax code, regulations and changes that would allow parents to spend a longer period of time at home after a child is born?” Blankenhorn wondered. “Why not double the child exemption in the first year of a child’s life? Why not have a kind of GI bill for parents?”

Fege, at the PTA, said that in the early days of the Clinton Administration, “we had recommended that there be an Office of Family and Children in the White House. We’re still proposing it.”

Perhaps President Clinton, who frequently ventures into schoolrooms to talk to children, could hold regular town meetings on subjects of interest to families, Fege said.

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But merely “by using the White House as a bully pulpit” on family issues, the President has helped advance these matters, Etzioni, of the Communitarian Network, pointed out.

Family matters are at least out on the table, agreed Cathy Collette of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--and that already represents an improvement.

“As much as we would like revolution,” Collette said, “I think we have to settle for evolution.”


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