Commentary: Pinocchio For President

Remember President Clinton's drive to raise the minimum wage? Just a couple of months ago, Democrats in Congress vowed to boost it 90 cents, to $5.15, by the Fourth of July. And how about Bob Dole's efforts to repeal a 1993 gasoline-tax hike? Just before quitting the Senate, the then-Majority Leader thundered that rolling back the levy by 4.3 cents a gallon was critical to the fate of the economy.

Well, the minimum wage is still $4.25 an hour. And the federal gas tax stands at 18.4 cents a gallon. Even though Senate leaders finally agreed on June 25 to vote on both bills later this summer, the odds of either becoming law remain long. Why? Republicans are still insisting on limitations on the minimum-wage hike that Democrats deem unacceptable. And Democrats will stall the fuel-tax rollback until they get a minimum-wage bill they like.

CHARADE. Are Clinton and Dole outraged at these latest examples of legislative gridlock? Hardly. In truth, the issues are playing out just about the way the two Presidential contenders want. Clinton is perfectly happy to see the minimum wage stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. And the last thing Dole wants is for Congress to pass a gas-tax repeal that the President then gets to sign into law.

Clinton prefers pounding the GOP for failing to pass a pay hike to actually seeing low-wage workers get a raise. After all, if Clinton really wanted to boost the minimum wage, he would have acted in his first two years in office, when the Democrats controlled Congress. Instead, he stumbled on the idea only after the Republicans took over Capitol Hill. "From a purely political standpoint," says one Administration strategist, "we would rather have the issue."

It's the same with Dole and the gas tax. Not only did the Kansan support higher fuel levies throughout the Reagan and Bush Administrations, he never really turned up the legislative heat to get the rollback passed. When the Democrats offered to link the gas tax and minimum wage in a single bill, Dole torpedoed the deal by throwing in a third measure that would make it easier for companies to negotiate work rules outside of collective bargaining. Because the provision is anathema to pro-labor Democrats, it derailed the whole package for months.

Then there was the matter of financing the tax cut, which would have cost about $4 billion a year. For weeks, Dole refused to say how he would pay for it. Finally, he suggested auctioning off broadcast spectrum to raise cash. Trouble is, congressional Republicans have decided to give away that spectrum to television broadcasters, and no one has yet come up with substitute bucks. But even if Congress had approved a spectrum sale, it would have paid for a gas-tax cut only through the end of the year, or--a cynic might note--just beyond the November elections. Once, Republicans promised to roll back the gas-tax hike permanently. But their latest six-year budget resolution (a plan called "Bob Dole's budget" by the GOP leadership) omits any mention of the gas tax whatsoever.

"OPENING SHOT." For Dole, the point is that Clinton proposed the '93 gas-tax hike. And sending a symbolic message about the President as a tax-and-spend Democrat is much more important to him than knocking down the levy for a few months. Says Dole campaign manager Scott W. Reed: "It was the opening shot of this huge tax-reform/tax-cutting debate we're going to have in the fall."

This being Washington, both proposals may yet pass Congress. The wishes of the Presidential candidates aside, plenty of incumbent lawmakers really want to bring home some goodies in the weeks before the election. Most congressional Democrats are determined to raise the minimum wage. And Republicans desperately want to get the issue behind them. At the same time, GOP lawmakers would gladly support any tax cut, even one that lasts only a few months. But chances are that politicking will continue to keep either measure from ever becoming law. "The likelihood of Congress sending the President anything he can sign is about zero," predicts one Republican lawmaker.

As the campaign heats up, both Dole and Clinton will be spewing an endless stream of promises--tax cuts, balanced budgets, anticrime initiatives, to name only a few. But the candidates shouldn't be surprised if voters don't believe them. After watching the debates over the gas tax and the minimum wage turn into a political charade, who would?

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