When people look at Washington, much of the time they think it has lost its mind. And you know what? They are right.
The current example is H.R. 1469, an emergency appropriation bill providing money for the Midwest flood victims. Congress failed to pass it before it quit for the Memorial Day holiday, so more wrangling is ahead when it returns this week.
That is bad enough. What makes it all the more mind-boggling is that the bill is hung up because it includes a standby provision that would guarantee the government will not be shut down again, as it was in the winter of 1995-96, if the Republican Congress and President Clinton cannot agree on spending for next year.
As a public service, I have spent hours interviewing Republican legislators and Clinton administration officials and now am prepared to tell you why all this makes perfect sense - you just need to understand the mentality of this place. Here are the answers to the most commonly asked questions.
Q: How dare they stop emergency help for those poor flood victims?
A: An emergency means something different in Washington from what it does in your family. It does not necessarily require immediate action. The administration, which says it is mad as hell about the delay, nevertheless concedes that no one actually has been denied a warming cup of coffee or a replacement for a waterlogged carpet because of Congress’ dithering.
About $2 billion is “in the pipeline” for emergency assistance, not yet used. But longer-term projects, such as rebuilding whole blocks of homes or businesses, need longer-term financing. And the “pipeline” has to be refilled, or it will be empty when the next emergency comes. So the longer the delay, the more to worry about. But the argument is not about how much help to send; that’s not the issue.
Q: So what’s the issue?
A: The Republicans know this is a bill the president doesn’t want to veto, since it would hurt his reputation as a man who “feels your pain,” so they have cleverly added several items that they know he would reject if they came to him in separate, free-standing legislation.
(This is not a new game. It has been going on approximately since George Washington’s second term.)
The bill, among other things, would require the Interior Department to scrap some new regulations about building roads across public lands and direct the Census Bureau to count heads in 2000 the old-fashioned (and inaccurate) way, rather than using sampling techniques similar to those every member of Congress uses when he polls his district before election time. This is a splendid example of the old congressional habit of telling agencies, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
But the really big stink bomb the Republicans have tied to the tail of this not-very-urgent emergency appropriation is the “automatic continuing resolution.”
Q: What in the world is that?
A: I am glad you asked. It would, if it became law, guarantee that come Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins, if Congress and the president are still feuding about the budget, every department and agency could continue to spend exactly what it had been spending for the past year. There would be no shutdown of government.
Naturally, the president regards this as outrageous.
Q: Why? I thought he told Congress after the last shutdown that it should never happen again. Has he changed his mind? Or has he lost it?
A: Mind your tongue. Of course he doesn’t want another government shutdown. (Never mind that he soared in the polls, while the Republicans sank, when the last one occurred. He is not thinking about re-election.)
He is concerned that, if this became law, he could not threaten the Republicans with another shutdown by vetoing their appropriation bills and then, once again, use his “bully pulpit” to convince the public that the GOP was to blame.
Clinton just spent four months of his valuable time negotiating a budget deal with the Republican leaders that, on paper, gives him the extra spending he wants for his favorite programs. But he is afraid that without the threat of another shutdown the Republican appropriators may renege and those programs would have to limp along with what they get right now.
And - you know what? - he is right. They may, because there probably isn’t enough money to pay for everything he wants and everything they want.
Q: And for either side to lose its leverage in that theoretical October showdown could be politically harmful in the 1998 election?
A: Right. Forget the flood victims. That’s what Washington regards as a real emergency.