If you believe what Republicans are saying, this Congress is writing a record for the ages. In a manifesto issued May 25, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said, "We set out at the beginning of this 106th Congress to advance four crucial reforms to secure America's future,'' and -- mirabile dictu -- education, defense, taxes and retirement programs all are being improved and modernized with GOP votes.
Daily we are learning what 'reform' means to congressional Republicans, and the lesson is clear. It means taking care of business and the affluent and delaying any measures that might redirect government resources in a more useful way.
When Armey issued his statement on the eve of Congress' Memorial Day recess, he probably did not realize that in its first week back at work in June, it would turn his boast into a bad joke.
Armey is the inventor of one of the true reforms in the past decade, the cure for logrolling that adds billions to the Pentagon budget. While the GOP was still in the minority, Armey proposed creation of a bipartisan commission that would assess the military's needs and recommend which bases could be closed. Once certified by the president, the commission's proposal must be voted up or down, without change, by Congress, thus ending the ancient practice in which members swap votes in order to keep their own bases open.
The Armey idea worked well in its first couple of applications, but in 1996, President Clinton played politics with the package, in order to strengthen his re-election prospects in California. Since then, Republicans have balked at authorizing new base-closing commissions.
Their resentment of Clinton is understandable, but last week, the Senate killed a bipartisan proposal for a new commission -- one that would not report until Clinton's successor is in office. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the former presidential candidate, teamed up with Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin to press for the money-saving measure. But while Democrats split evenly on the issue, which was endorsed by Vice President Gore, Armey's fellow-Republicans voted 40-13 to kill it.
That was not the only assassination plot that the Republicans hatched. Over on the House side, a party-line vote ordered the administration to drop its effort to reduce the estimated 1.8 million workplace repetitive-stress injuries each year.
For years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been developing training programs and safety measures aimed at this, the most common source of on-the-job physical problems. And just as persistently, the Republicans, heeding the pleas of their business constituents, have cut the funds and denied the authority needed to deal with the problem.
These are the same House Republicans who last week gave a demonstration of their definition of tax reform by approving a measure that would provide great benefits to the voters who need help the least. They passed a measure phasing out the federal estate tax -- "a death tax,'' in Republican vernacular -- over the next 10 years. It would reduce federal revenues by $105 billion in the decade, with the price rising to an estimated $50 billion in the final year.
And whose pockets would be filled by this largesse? Today, estates below $675,000 are exempt from federal taxation. That exemption already is scheduled to rise to $1 million. Republicans talked about family farmers and small-business people whose heirs were forced to sell out because of the "death tax.'' But farms and small businesses already have a $1.3 million exemption. In 1998, only 47,500 estates paid any tax, and almost half the taxes were paid by fewer than 3,000 estates valued at more than $5 million.
Democrats sought to reduce the rates on most of the taxable estates and to raise the exemption, while still reaching the wealthiest of the wealthy. Their version would have cost $5 billion in 2010, 1/10th 5/8 of the size of the Republican giveaway to the wealthy. So, of course, the Republicans said no.
If there is some political strategy in this, it's not obvious. Texas Gov. George W. Bush is trying to show that his party cares about those who have shared little in the current prosperity, but congressional Republicans structure a $50 billion bonanza to the heirs of Bill Gates and other newly minted millionaires. At the same time, they block modest workplace reforms, delay an increase in the minimum wage, and drag their feet on patients' rights legislation.
Some reformers these are.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press