Pandering is a harsh term, but for characterizing current Washington politics, it is entirely appropriate. At a time when the U.S. cries out for honest leadership in digging its way out of two decades worth of debt--$5 trillion worth, to be exact--both Republicans and Democrats are playing a politics-as-usual game of pandering to constituent interests. Instead of taking the nation's overall interests to heart, politicians are maneuvering their tactical pawns on the chessboard of the 1996 Presidential election. It really stinks.
Take the GOP. Just months after riding into town on the great promise of dramatically altering the way things are done in Washington, the Republicans are already mired in the muck of money and votes. They're getting rolled by just about all of their constituent groups with a hand out for government dollars. Farmers? They get to keep the $27 billion annual Food Stamp Program as a federal entitlement when all other welfare programs are being block-granted to the states. And please don't tell us it's for the children. It's welfare for the farmers and votes for their representatives in the House, pure and simple. Vets? When the GOP tried to make a tiny $200 million nick in the 1995 Veterans Administration budget of $17 billion, vet lobbyists restored every penny (with President Clinton egging them on by trumping the Republicans with an offer to boost spending on the VA).
Where did the GOP find $17 billion in cuts in this year's budget? Here are a few: $1.6 billion in housing funds; $113 million in education for the disadvantaged; $38.5 million in bilingual and immigrant education; $1 billion in school lunches; $25 million for pregnant women and infant nutrition. Not only are these all Democratic constituents, they are the weakest groups in society, without PAC bucks or lobbying clout.
These cuts are just for a one-year rescission. For the future, the GOP plans to shape the programs into a few block grants, cap the funding, and let the states deal with the social problems, saving $69.5 billion over the next five years.
It's not that block grants are a bad idea. Just the opposite. Many states are doing a good job in moving people off the welfare rolls into the workforce and getting them to be responsible adults. It's certainly not bad to save on waste and corruption to curb the deficit. The fact is that the Democrats lost the moral high ground long ago by not practicing tough love on welfare recipients and turning a blind eye to corruption in set-asides and other social programs. The Republicans are right in trying to radically alter the welfare state.
The problem is consistency, equity, and morality. If welfare is bad, it's bad for cowboys and farmers as well as welfare queens. Why should Nevada ranchers get taxpayer-subsidized water when the poor in Philadelphia no longer receive subsidized federal housing? Why should federal foster care be cut by $150 million when families making $200,000 are scheduled to get a $500-per-child tax credit?
The polls show that the public is already losing faith in the GOP's ability to fulfill a Contract With America that doesn't stomp on the weak in favor of the privileged and powerful. Instead of a true revolution of ideas and ideals, the country is watching the byplay of constituency politics by both parties. This kind of behavior can have only one effect--a massive shift to a third party in 1996, fragmenting the body politic. Both the GOP and the Democrats still have a chance to clean up their acts. They'd better take it.