Much of how the Republicans are changing the status quo has not been widely reported. As Major Garrett points out in the preceding article, it’s taking place in quiet, behind-the-scenes ways: through the appropriations process, in an amendment to a bill, or in the day-to-day work of federal agencies. In these realms the Republicans can quietly change the country–in ways that wouldn’t be so popular if they were public knowledge.
Following are 10 ways in which the complex maneuverings taking place on Capitol Hill will change business as usual. The first two have encouraging aspects. But the rest will make you think that business as usual wasn’t all that bad.
Fewer of your tax dollars will go to government entitlement programs.
In their fervor to attack “big government,” the Republicans may gut some of our most important social safety nets: Their plans to deny AFDC benefits to children born to single women younger than 18 will push millions off welfare rolls, with no alternative in sight. But some of the programs the Republicans talk of cutting have been sacred cows for too long: government agencies such as Housing and Urban Development; quasigovernment organizations such as Amtrak. Liberals will disagree with Gingrich-style Republicans over what should be cut, but to seriously address the budget deficit, Democrats and Republicans will have to form some consensus over what the federal government should and shouldn’t spend money on.
One particularly fat sacred cow that might now bite the dust is farm subsidies. In 1994 the government paid farmers, large and small, some $10 billion to prop up the price of their goods. That benefited a special interest group while sticking it to consumers in two ways: You paid more for goods such as bread, cereal, and milk, and your taxes were higher than they needed to be.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Republican intellectual guru Bill Kristol are now questioning farm subsidies. The subsidies may still survive; two of their biggest defenders are Bob Dole and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). But once farm subsidies–and other pork programs–come under scrutiny, it’s only a matter of time before they’re axed.
Your Congress may be less corrupt.
After 40 years of Democratic control, the House of Representatives needed a good shakeup, and Newt is giving it one. (The Democrats could have done some shaking up of their own, but instead re-elected their tired old leadership–notably Dick Gephardt–to be their tired new leadership.)
Reducing the power of the committee chairs will make it harder for them to stuff legislation with goodies for their districts, as heavyweights such as John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Jack Brooks (D-Texas) often did. Likewise, it’s a good thing that the House has decided to abide by its own laws. It’ll help law-makers understand the workplace issues ordinary Americans face, and create a fairer working environment on Capitol Hill, where no-no’s such as sexual harassment are commonplace.
The Republicans might even pass mild campaign finance legislation. True, Gingrich, more than anyone else, was responsible for killing it in the last Congress. But Gingrich was in a position to score political points (at President Clinton’s expense) by torpedoing it; if this time around he can score points by passing a symbolic version, he just may.
One caveat: Many of Gingrich’s proposals to reform Congress have more to do with elevating the power of the speaker’s office. Abandoning seniority as the main criterion for appointing committee chairs, for example, makes those Gingrich appointed more obedient to him. And eliminating the 28 House caucuses (the arts caucus, the black caucus, the women’s caucus, etc.) doesn’t save money, but it does exterminate competing power bases and sources of information.
Still, at least Gingrich and the Republicans have started the reform ball rolling. They might be surprised where it stops.
It will be harder for you to get a safe, affordable abortion.
The Contract with America shies away from discussing abortion because Republican polls show that voters are of mixed minds on the subject. But make no mistake: The new Congress is filled with opponents of the right to choose. The pro-life side now has majorities in both the House and the Senate, and pro-life politicians chair every committee with jurisdiction over abortion issues. Gingrich himself received a zero (out of a 100) rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League in the last Congress.
One goal of the pro-life forces is to reinstitute the “gag rule” that barred federally funded health clinics from counseling women regarding abortion. Overturned by President Clinton’s executive order, the gag rule may be brought back, due to the efforts of people like Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), perhaps the most outspoken choice opponent in the House.
Congress will probably cut funds for research on RU486, the so-called abortion pill; a ban on its sale also looks likely. There may also be a ban on fetal tissue research, which holds great promise for treating illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease. Congress will cut Title X appropriations, some of which are used for family planning, and may try to weaken the clinic access bill, which makes it a federal crime to impede access to a clinic, and allows doctors and women who’ve been harmed by anti-abortion protesters to sue for injunctive relief.
“Will they try to outlaw abortion in this Congress?” asks a NARAL spokesperson. “No. But they will try to make it more and more difficult for women to get abortions–and then they’ll wait and see who gets elected president in 1996.”
Your air, water, and land will get more polluted.
In its attack on federal regulations and its pro-business giveaways, the Contract with America promotes the idea that environmentalism does nothing but cost jobs and cripple businesses. Gingrich has gone so far as to call the Environmental Protection Agency the second largest job-killer in America. (To see what Newt considers the first, see change #6.)
Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), the new head of the Commerce Committee, plans to introduce legislation to “streamline” the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act, two crucial environmental laws. Bliley will be supported by the new heads of congressional committees with domain over public lands, Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (both from Alaska), who have taken over the Senate Natural Resources Committee and House Resources Committee respectively. As Garrett noted, both support the aggressive commercial use of public lands in Alaska; they recently pushed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to nearly double the number of cruise ships allowed into Glacier Bay National Park, threatening the breeding grounds of humpback whales, seals, sea lions, and otters. Now Murkowski and Young have the chance to take their pro-exploitation agenda nationwide.
One omen came late last year. When Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) was up to head the appropriations subcommittee of the House Interior Committee (a key post to determine where environmental protection funds are spent), he caught flak from Republicans who worried he wasn’t adequately pro-business. Regula assured them, “My environmental record wasn’t all that great,” as he told the Washington Post. He got the job.
You’ll be more likely to be killed by a gun.
The 103rd Congress passed two popular, landmark gun control measures: the Brady Bill, mandating a waiting period and background check for gun purchases, and the assault weapons ban. Before the November election, gun control advocates were hoping to pass further legislation regulating the manufacture and sale of firearms.
Now further proposals are out of the question, and the survival of the Brady Law and the assault weapons ban are at stake. The ways in which these pieces of legislation will be undermined demonstrate how Congress’ byzantine workings can have a marked impact on peoples’ lives.
Knowing that the Brady Law and the assault weapons ban are hugely popular with the public, the Republican leadership doesn’t want to try to repeal them. But the Republicans will “reopen” the 1993 crime bill under “open rules,” meaning that anyone can offer amendments. Hostile amendments are likely to pass; the National Rifle Association has given an A or A+ rating to 224 members of the House. (A majority is 218.)
Republican efforts to “modify” the laws may have much the same effect as repealing them. For example: The assault weapons ban prevents the manufacture of assault weapons by defining what an assault weapon is, and banning such weapons. But if an amendment to the crime bill redefined what constitutes an assault weapon, manufacturers could start making guns that looked and shot and killed like assault weapons, but just weren’t labeled as such. “That’s as dangerous as a complete repeal of the law itself,” says Bob Walker, legislative director of Handgun Control, Inc. “If I can go out and produce a gun that’s technically the same as the [currently illegal] Tech-9, what’s the law achieved?”
The food and drugs you buy will be less safe.
Probably no federal agency has been more criticized by the Republicans than the Food and Drug Administration. Gingrich called it the “number one job-killer” in the country, and the sentiment is widely echoed among his followers. Their argument: The FDA moves at a glacial pace; it’s hostile to business; and it stifles competition and free enterprise. The truth is, the FDA isn’t perfect, but under Commissioner David Kessler it has been activist, diligent, scrupulous, and responsive to the safety of consumers over the demands of business.
Gingrich has actually called for replacing the FDA with a “council of entrepreneurs,” claiming that the market will take care of any poisonous foods or drugs after the fact through legal actions. In other words, if your child is born deformed by a drug such as thalidomide–the drug that prompted the FDA to require safety testing–you can sue, and future companies will pay attention. (But note change #10, which will make your lawsuit a lot more difficult.)
Because the Republicans don’t want to seem anti-consumer, the attack on the FDA will be subtle. First off, the FDA’s budget will be cut. (“Their appropriation is going to get destroyed,” says one administration source.) With less money, the FDA will conduct fewer investigations. Ironically, it may also take longer to approve new drugs.
And there are other ways to slow the FDA’s work. “Anytime there’s an enforcement action or any policy or regulation deemed controversial in the eyes of Republicans, they can slam the FDA with a massive document subpoena and hold hearings on it,” the source says. “It’s an incredible waste of time.”
One casualty: any plan to regulate tobacco as a drug, which the FDA was promoting in the last Congress. Forget it.
If you’re gay or lesbian, you’ll face more discrimination.
It was tough for gay rights groups to make gains with a Democratic Congress; the fight now is to stem the losses. The first battle will be to maintain current levels of funding for AIDS research and care. The Ryan White C.A.R.E. Act, which aims to provide $633 million for AIDS care and treatment in 1995, is up for reauthorization. Expect Republicans to attack it. Also on the line is a Housing and Urban Development program providing money to house poor people with AIDS (not just gays and lesbians, of course); it barely survived the last budget round, and its future is now up in the air.
In the last Congress, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) pushed for an amendment to the education funding bill that would have denied federal funding to school districts that appeared to “condone” homosexuality in their curriculum or counseling services. The result? “If a kid comes in to a counselor and says, ‘I think I’m gay. I’m really depressed and I want to kill myself,’ the counselor could not say, ‘It’s OK to be gay,’ nor could he refer the kid to anyone else for counseling,” says Douglas Hattaway, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign Fund.
Politicians find it tough to vote against anti-gay legislation–they can just imagine the attack ad portraying them as advocates of homosexuality–so gay rights supporters devised this tactic: They wouldn’t condemn politicians who voted for Helms-like amendments, because they’d have someone like Ted Kennedy immediately propose a follow-up amendment, stating that the preceding bill’s language didn’t apply to gays and lesbians. The only problem: Now such
follow-up amendments won’t pass. President Clinton could veto a bill laden with homophobic amendments, but don’t count on it.
Your health–especially if you’re poor–will deteriorate.
To pay for their massive giveaways to corporate America, Republicans will have to cut deeply into the budget’s discretionary spending–and that means cutting funds for public health measures. Why is public health an easy target? Because the benefits of preventive medicine are usually seen in things that don’t happen: epidemics don’t break out, people don’t get AIDS, people don’t start smoking.
The effects of slashing funds for preventive medicine will be disastrous. “If you cut back on social spending,” says an official at the Centers for Disease Control, “you undermine the social infrastructure of poor communities. You increase the rate of a lot of poverty-associated illnesses and injuries. But it won’t happen right away. It may take four or five or eight years to see an increase in the death rate.”
Look for slowly rising rates of diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, as well as social ills like drug abuse and teen pregnancy. And cancer: Thomas J. Bliley Jr., who hails from Richmond, home base of Philip Morris, has vowed to stop what he calls the congressional persecution of the tobacco industry. That means, for example, no more hearings like those held in the last Congress on whether the industry “spikes” its cigarettes with additional nicotine in order to promote addiction. “What’s at stake?” asks one Democratic congressional aide. “Whether or not we get decent anti-smoking programs and more serious kinds of no-sales-to-minors restrictions. You won’t see much of that happening under Mr. Bliley. The result will be a continued 400,000 deaths [from cigarettes] a year, tens of billions in medical costs that all of us pick up, and a less safe environment for our children.”
If you’re disabled, your life will get harder.
Newt’s Republicans hate the Americans with Disabilities Act (signed into law by George Bush), for two reasons: They say it puts burdensome regulations on business, and it’s an “unfunded mandate”–a federal law whose enforcement states have to pay for.
The ADA is enforced by the civil rights division of the Justice Department, whose head is Deval Patrick. Republicans hate Patrick just like they hated Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders. What do these three have in common? Other than the fact that they’re all black, all three have pushed vigorously and outspokenly to protect the disadvantaged.
“People are dying to jump on the ADA,” says Pat Wright of the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund. How? One way is to cut its funding; another is to ban outright all unfunded mandates (see change #10). A third is simply to politicize any controversial actions. (Before the election, Rush Limbaugh made hay with a case involving a woman who filed suit under the ADA, claiming that she had been discriminated against because of a chronic, physiological problem with body odor.)
You will have less protection from defective and dangerous goods.
One of the less well-known aspects of the Contract with America is the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act. The publicized parts of this plan call for billions of dollars a year in tax breaks for businesses. But an arcane and confusing section of the bill will cripple government agencies attempting to rein in the excesses of business and to protect consumer safety. It’s dry stuff, but it may have the most far-reaching effect of anything the Republicans do this Congress.
Currently any government agency–the FDA, the EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association–that wishes to implement a new regulation has to undergo a demanding three-step process. The Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act will add stages to that process, making it practically impossible for an agency to enact any new regulations. First, the agency must conduct a “risk assessment” of the regulation, including a cost-benefit analysis, to ensure that its benefits (to society) will justify its costs (to industry). That assessment will then be “peer reviewed” by a panel which could include industry representatives. Finally, the regulation will have to undergo a judicial review process allowing industry to kill it by suing even before it begins the original, public, three-step process.
The Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act will also ban unfunded mandates, stipulating that agencies have to provide state and local governments with the money to pay for the cost of any new regulation. If, say, the EPA rules that a certain level of chemical in drinking water is poisonous and should be cleaned up, it will have to provide the money to pay for that cleanup, or it won’t be able to pass the rule.
Moreover, under the act, Congress will have to cut private sector regulations and public sector mandates across the board by 6.5 percent a year for the next seven years. This will apply to a breathtaking number of popular and important government regulations–from the Brady Law and the inspection of chicken for salmonella to the Motor Voter law and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Agencies could accomplish this 6.5 percent cut in two ways: by weakening regulations or by cutting their enforcement staff.
“We’re talking about things like the recent E.coli bacteria food problems,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonpartisan consumer watchdog group. “Or the people who died in Milwaukee from drinking [contaminated] water. Or when workers lose fingers, hands, and arms in the workplace. But instead of attacking those very popular concepts, [the Republicans say] we’re going to roll back government regulation and red tape.”
And if a defective product does harm you? Well, the Republicans’ Orwellian-named “Common Sense Legal Reform Act,” will make it harder for you to sue the manufacturer. The act forces the losers of lawsuits to pay both sides’ legal fees. Poisoned by an unsafe drug? Maimed by faulty equipment? The Republicans will give you a choice: Grin and bear it; or risk being liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees.
Richard Blow is the editor of Regardie’s magazine, a Washington bimonthly.