Row over House caucuses is much ado about nothing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The controversy over the Republican plan to deny congressional funding to caucuses is a classic Washington brouhaha. It is far more political than substantive, and it has been characterized by far more heat than light.

It also demonstrates that the Republicans understand what happened in the Nov. 8 election while some Democrats are still apparently in denial.

In fact, the Republicans are not likely to save the taxpayers any substantial amount of money by scuttling the budgets for the 28 so-called "legislative service organizations" -- meaning caucuses of members of the House of Representatives with common interests.

But what the Republicans understand is that in the political climate of 1994, the move against the caucuses is a 10-strike. By contrast, the Democrats' squeals of outrage make you wonder if they have spent the last few weeks on another planet.

If there was a single message in the election returns, it was that the voters are fed up with Congress behaving as it has done under Democratic control. It was no accident that the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress without losing a single one of their incumbents.

But the retiring chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, described the Republican move as "an assault on diversity in the Congress and an attempt to disempower communities through congressional ethnic and philosophical cleansing." And Rep. Jose Serrano of New York said the Republicans were trying to limit "the voluntary choices of certain members of Congress with whom they disagree."

Mfume and Serrano may be correct in their suspicions that their groups made more tempting targets than caucuses made up of, for example, members with special concerns for the steel industry or the jewelry business. But the political reality, as the Republicans understand, is that the black and Hispanic groups make such good targets because they are seen by so many voters -- justifiably or not -- as quintessential "special interests" being subsidized with taxpayer money.

They are also excellent targets for the Republicans because, not incidentally, they represent largely Democratic constituencies.

The Republican claim that they will save big money is mostly hyperbole. The 28 caucuses do occupy 16 offices and employ 96 staff people costing some $4 million a year. But most of the employees come from the staffs of the caucus members who simply assign them to the caucuses and now will use them on other duties. So most of the saving will come from the cost of that office space.

Even if the savings are minimal, however, the electorate of 1994 is likely to applaud vigorously at what voters will see as an attack on an arrogant political establishment and an attempt to be more responsive to their concern about how their tax money is used.

Most of the caucuses will be able to continue functioning even if in a less structured way. And some of them have other sources of funds they can use to operate on a more limited basis. The clout of those with the greatest influence -- the 41-member Congressional Black Caucus being the prime example -- will not evaporate because they do not have separate office space.

The group that may suffer the most from the GOP decision is the Democratic Study Group, an organization that for years has produced and distributed daily analyses of issues before Congress that many members and aides -- including a few Republicans -- had come to rely upon. But whether even this service justified taxpayer funding is open to question in the climate in which the Republicans are taking control.

The hard reality for the Democrats in Congress is that the Republicans can get away with almost anything that the voters see as a change in the way things have always been done in Washington. All through the campaign of 1994, the voters were saying that nothing should be sacrosanct simply because it was long-established. Republican candidates for the House found the sure-fire applause line was the one about reforming Congress as the first step to making the federal government more responsive and effective.

The Democratic reaction is understandable. They are the ones whose oxen are being gored right now. But they are kidding themselves if they believe they can find broad popular support for spending the taxpayers' money on special interests. The world has turned.

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