Speedy delivery

National | As the House and Senate accelerate bills on taxes and education, will the haste help President Bush's reforms or achieve bureaucratic business as usual?

Issue: "California school shooting," March 17, 2001

at the White House-Washington, D.C. has no skyscrapers, thanks to the capital planners who wanted no building to overshadow the national monuments. But on one of the highest platforms in Washington, the National Press Club on the 13th floor of the National Press Building, President Bush's tax-cut proposal inspired the public-relations equivalent of tag-team wrestling. In one room, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform held a press conference displaying a coalition of conservative groups that will lobby for tax cuts. Fresh from victory in the John Ashcroft confirmation battle, the conservatives were talking tough. "See you at the bill-signing ceremony," clucked Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union. Several conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and the United Seniors Association, pledged to spend millions of dollars in advertising in such states as Maine and Vermont, home of wavering GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and James Jeffords. Down the hall, in a fancier and more spacious room, People for the American Way and the American Federation for State, County, and Municipal Employees were also talking tough. "We're here to fight for every American who expects our government to play fair and to act responsibly," declared PFAW leader Ralph Neas. All this ideological rancor on the top floor would no doubt frustrate President Bush, who is still prescribing a soothing dose of bipartisanship to get things done. As journalists count down Mr. Bush's first 100 days at the helm, House and Senate committees are each stepping on the accelerator to pass new bills, causing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to hail the arrival of a "do-something Congress." But will this congressional haste help the president-shepherding his campaign pledges quickly through committees without the delaying tactics or poisonous amendments of lobbyists? Or will the result be passage for the sake of passage, leaving the president seeking a "new Washington" with a Welcome Wagon basket of bureaucratic business as usual? Within days of Bush's address to a joint session of Congress, the House Ways and Means Committee passed the Bush tax cut on a party-line vote. But instead of making all the rate cuts retroactive, committee Chairman Bill Thomas reduced only the bottom rate immediately, and dropped that to 12 percent instead of 10, delaying fuller relief for the lowest tax bracket. Conservatives reacted harshly. The sentinels of supply-side economics at the Wall Street Journal editorial page asked why the Democrats should bother with a tax bill of their own: "Just leave Republicans sitting at the bargaining table by themselves and they'll eventually bring forth something so tepid and distorted it will please even [liberal New York Democrat] Charlie Rangel," they wrote. Meanwhile, Democrats fumed about the quick party-line passage. "It's a serious mistake," claimed deal-brokering Sen. John Breaux. But the tax cuts will soon rest on the doorsteps of the Senate. On other fronts, the president's preferred state of bipartisan harmony remains. In the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott pressed the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to pass the Bush education plan so the full floor could consider it this week. (In the wings, Sen. John McCain will demand that his campaign-regulation bill meet its mid-March deadline for consideration.) TeamBush didn't send a bill to the Senate, but committee staffers, led by liberal Republican James Jeffords and liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy, crafted a six-inch-thick, 500-page education bill. Heritage Foundation education analyst Krista Kafer hailed a new bipartisan consensus emerging around reforms. "Last year, nobody was on the same page. Clinton's plan was just the status quo, plus more money," Ms. Kafer said. "I think there's room for hope. I think the increase in spending in the president's plan makes the package more attractive to Democrats." Sens. Jeffords and Kennedy asked conservative Sen. Judd Gregg to add his thoughts to the bill. Gregg spokesman Jeff Turcotte told WORLD "about 90 percent" of what the Bush plan hopes to accomplish finds no disagreement on either side of the aisle. "We should see a united front, a good, solid, bipartisan vote. This has some pretty significant reforms, and it's pleasantly surprising that there's a lot of common ground here that federal education dollars should be focused on children, parents, and teachers, instead of schools and buildings and bricks and bureaucracy." The Gregg aide predicted a Senate battle over some items, including vouchers for private and parochial schools, and measures that would allow states flexibility in how they spend federal dollars in exchange for strict accountability requirements to ensure they've increased student achievement. But it wasn't long before Sen. Gregg himself retreated. By the middle of last week, he withdrew his voucher proposal in committee: "You've got a lot of Democrats who aren't represented in this committee, who have a different approach to education." Sen. Hillary Clinton was positively agreeable: "There was a great effort here to come up with a bipartisan package that we can agree on. That's not something we can agree on." On the House side, Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner pledged to pass voucher legislation to offer an "escape hatch" from failing schools. Other education experts were skeptical about the Senate bill. Family Research Council education analyst Erika Lestrelle said, "It's a little frightening to us. The president says he's not the federal superintendent of schools, that he's for local control, but when you look at some of these policies, they look very highly centralized. You see the heavy hand of the federal government imposing regulations on the states. I'd like to take him at his word, but we'll have to wait and see." Ms. Lestrelle said the FRC would focus on the House side of the education debate, hoping that the House passes a bill with more decentralized objectives. For example, the Bush plan may have the effect of creating a national testing regime, instead of allowing the states to have their own tests. "Over the past decade, we've seen a profusion of skills-based standards that are hurting kids, asking very subjective questions, like asking eighth-graders to fill out a job application, instead of testing them on the basics they'll need for a job. Some tests ask intrusive questions into family backgrounds. Students need tests with a strictly academic focus." Even as education bills pass over the old Clinton "Goals 2000" and "School to Work" language, much of that language remains embedded in the law. Politicians find education such a popular objective with voters that new programs are quickly piled upon old programs, leaving a confusing patchwork of education bureaucracies. Rep. Peter Hoekstra found in a 1998 study an amalgamation of 760 federal education programs in 39 agencies that cost $100 billion a year. Despite Mr. Bush's emphasis on local control, both parties appear to support a greater role in education for Washington. All this focus on legislative substance caused the White House to hail the cooling of congressional investigations into the Clinton pardons. Spokesman Ari Fleischer proclaimed, "Even the calls for investigations, I think, are diminishing." Ari Fleisher knocked down a Newsweek story, saying he knew nothing of TeamBush pressure to prune the pardon probe, and House Government Reform Committee spokesman Mark Corrallo backed him up. He told WORLD, "We have not gotten any pressure from the White House." House investigators have no new pardon hearings scheduled, but they are reviewing donation records from the Clinton library to explore the possibility of more pardon-for-sale scenarios. Senate probers asked Mr. Clinton if he would testify in private, but he rejected the approach. The spotlight may now shine directly on the White House. Political observers always put additional pressure on new presidents to achieve great things within the arbitrary deadline of the first 100 days. With cabinet appointment difficulties and massive health-care planning, President Clinton didn't have much to point to after his first few months. But both President Bush and congressional leaders believe these first legislative battles will be an important test of Mr. Bush's new change-the-tone paradigm. If tax-cut and education-reform bills cross Capitol Hill with unusual speed, the president might be tempted to say, "I told you so." But that's just not his style.

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