The Players Change, But Gridlock Is Still The Name Of The Game

To see what's wrong with the new Congress, look no further than the unfunded mandates reform bill now bogged down on both sides of the Capitol. The measure bars Washington from forcing states and cities to comply with federal regulations, from clean air to voter registration, unless the feds foot the bill. Passage should have been a snap. It's a top priority of Republican congressional leaders. President Clinton backs it. And a bipartisan coalition of public officials across the country has pleaded for it.

So why is it languishing? Because politics-as-usual survived the election earthquake of 1994--only the roles have been reversed. A new GOP majority bent on exerting control is crushing opposition amendments, however worthy. And the Democratic minority is adopting the guerrilla delay-and-block tactics honed over the years by the GOP.

BICKERING. Although the bill will pass, the dustup sends a sharp warning to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries: If modest initiatives can get snarled in fierce partisan bickering, imagine the fate that awaits radical changes such as welfare reform, regulatory relief, and spending cuts.

The fight over unfunded mandates was triggered by a GOP miscalculation. In their zeal to pass the measure before Clinton's State of the Union address on Jan. 24, party leaders rushed it to the House and Senate floors without taking normal precautions to fix any kinks in committee. Sure enough, Democrats found a flaw: The bill could unintentionally penalize private enterprise.

The legislation exempts governments--but not businesses--from the costs of new health, safety, and environmental rules. That creates a competitive disadvantage for companies bidding against localities in a growing market for privatizing government services. Private trash haulers would have to implement the latest waste regulations at their own expense, but competing municipal sanitation departments would be subsidized by the feds. "This will have an unfair and burdensome impact on business," protests Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a probusiness moderate who has supported unfunded-mandate curbs in the past. Handed a chance to tarnish the GOP's business-friendly image, Lieberman and Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pounced. They sought to curtail exemptions for localities in fields where they compete with the private sector. But a united GOP blocked the move, 53-44. "They view this as a test of their political manhood," gripes a Democratic strategist.

OVERSTATED? The GOP's rush worries some business lobbyists. "We'd like to be assured that we do not have a competitive disadvantage with the public sector over the long term," says Kevin Stickney, vice-president of Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., a New Hampshire environmental technology company. But Republicans say business concerns may be overstated. Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), for one, promises to seek a remedy if any discrimination against the private sector occurs.

The GOP charges that the Democrats' real aim is not to aid business but to kill the bill. And they have a point. While Lieberman and Levin seem sincere about correcting the Republicans' hasty move, others want to embarrass the new GOP rulers by gumming up Congress' machinery. Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a master parliamentarian, single-handedly caused a five-day delay in passage of a bill forcing Congress to live under laws it applies to business, and now he's at it again on unfunded mandates. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole refers to his tactics as "Byrdlock."

But for Democrats, Byrdlock is just a variation of the old game voters thought they were ending last November. It's known as Gridlock, and the players show no signs of tiring.

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