On the Home Front


Although the two Georges -- Bush and Mitchell -- are loath to admit it, the Persian Gulf war puts their differing domestic agendas on indefinite hold. Just as they pushed predictable buttons in the State of the Union address and the opposition reply, the nation's top Republican and top Democrat will continue to debate and parry with little expectation of significant action on the home front.

Taxes are a case in point. To placate the GOP right wing, President Bush trotted out his dog-eared call for cuts in the capital gains tax but quickly shuffled off the issue to a study commission. Senate Majority Leader Mitchell countered with the usual liberal bid to soak the rich and sprinkle goodies on the non-rich. Fact is, the budget agreement passed last year would force Congress to come up with spendings cuts or revenue enhancements to offset any real tax cuts. It won't happen.

That same budget agreement will impose severe restraints on any initiatives on the spending side. If one domestic program gets more dollars, another will have to get fewer. Democrats can't even pretend, for the next couple of years, that the offset can be found in foreign aid or in defense cuts.

Health care is a case in point. Senator Mitchell lamented, with good reason, that 37 million working Americans do not have health insurance. Yet he then pulled back from the customary Democratic promise to do something about it. All he said was that "we can provide better health care at less cost; we all have to do more with less."

The straitjacket on domestic initiatives is clearly the product of years of deficit spending and competitive decline, both of which limit U.S. resources and opportunities. Congress and the White House would be in this predicament even if war had not broken out and the recession were not curtailing revenues and increasing mandatory welfare entitlement costs. The conflict in the gulf merely gives both sides political cover in explaining to their respective constituencies why they can't deliver.

Since most money matters are essentially settled or circumscribed by a $300 billion deficit, George Bush and George Mitchell will have to make do with domestic battles over philosophy and policy. The president was big on individual empowerment, a concept conservatives flaunt as "the new paradigm." Thus, he was all for putting child care money in the hands of parents, not bureaucrats, for letting public housing tenants own their dwellings, for vouchers permitting children to go to either private or public schools. Senator Mitchell put his emphasis on the role of government in improving education, technology, help for pre-school children, saying "there is a crisis at home." Both men agreed on the need for an energy policy, campaign reforms, banking system overhaul.

Little of substance can be expected from the 102nd Congress. It is on the sidelines in the gulf struggle and has little enough leverage to prod a president quite content to follow a minimalist agenda on the home front. The focus is war.

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