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Dole’s Chance to Show What He’s Made Of : Leadership is called for as Senate faces key decisions

Memo to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole: The Senate is facing some key decisions this week. Here’s your chance to show Americans you have the stuff that presidents are made of. Will you seize the opportunity?

There will be of course the temptation to placate intractable members of the GOP--the ones who, for example, initially didn’t want federal employees to have health insurance coverage for abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. The Senate did agree to at least cover rape and incest cases, but the fact that this was raised to a point of serious debate shows how the rules of the game have changed. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich has had to fend off criticism from zealots who say that he’s not aggressive enough in pushing a pure conservative agenda.

As you know, Sen. Dole, this week the Senate will take up welfare reform, including your own proposal to trim and restructure the system. Welfare, which folks on both sides of the aisle admit needs retooling, will rightly garner a lot of attention. But also facing the Senate is a House spending bill that may be a truer test of your ability to negotiate a reasonable course for the nation. The House bill, passed last week, would slash nearly $10 billion in spending for federal labor, health and education programs. These targets are always enticing to Republican cost cutters, much as defense weapons systems are to the Democrats. Senator, can you set aside the usual expectations in order to move the Senate toward a spending bill that does more than just pacify various constituencies?

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NO PORK SHORTAGE: Certainly Congress needs to trim government, specifically bloated bureaucracies and bipartisan pork. History proves, however, that less is not always better.

In considering cuts in the spending bill, the House had authority to touch only the $61 billion that wasn’t specifically allocated to Medicare and other entitlement programs. Medicare and the other programs--not controlled by the annual appropriations process--make up most of the $256-billion labor, health and education spending bill. Hard choices were demanded of the lawmakers, but why cut deeply into programs that help people help themselves? For example, Head Start would suffer a cut that, although small, would deny an educational boost to as many as 180,000 poor preschoolers. This successful Great Society program, as Presidents Clinton and George Bush have said, should get more, not less.

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TOP POST A TARGET: Another target is the office of the U.S. surgeon general. Though largely symbolic, this post has been used as a bully pulpit to warn Americans about the dangers of smoking, the risk of AIDS and the consequences of poor eating and drinking habits. The House eliminated funding for this position. Abolishing the post wouldn’t save much except the aggravation of political fighting over controversial nominees.

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The House legislation also would restrict the ability of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce worker safety rules. Relaxing these protections for working Americans is shortsighted.

There are elements in the House bill worth retaining, among them increases for the National Institutes of Health, which is the nation’s key biomedical research institution, and the Centers for Disease Control.

Republicans and Democrats traditionally have warring priorities based on competing visions of government. Together, they must cut unnecessary bureaucratic layers as well as the deficit--but without abandoning Americans who need help.

Bob Dole: It has often been said that the Senate was designed to be, and is, the more deliberative body of Congress. Let’s see that thoughtfulness this week.


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