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Give debate -- not money -- back to the people


Here in Missouri, August is the time for state and county fairs. But whatever those nightly stages might offer, the best grandstanding around has been miles away in Washington. It was too hot to go to the fair anyway. Especially when the most dramatic acts were as close as the television screen.

A projected $5.9 trillion surplus in the federal coffers over the next 15 years is creating an election-time bonanza, setting politicians and their eager staffs to spinning, along with our poor heads. Can anyone, except maybe Bill Gates, bend a mind around a figure so big? What fodder for spectacles and sideshows with so many votes in the balance next year.

As NCR went to press, conservative Republicans forged a House-Senate compromise calling for $792 billion in tax cuts over the next decade. A confrontation with the White House is expected to come after Labor Day. Let’s hope Clinton delivers on his promise of a veto.

So far, the impoverished debate has consisted largely of demands from ideology-driven Republicans that the money go back to taxpayers, and proposals from Democrats that it be used to reduce the national debt. Clinton, his ear ever to the ground, wants to shore up Social Security and Medicare and boost the welfare-to-work program with training, transportation and child care. Worthwhile causes, to be sure -- but too narrow to do justice to the possibilities we face.

The show in Congress has been hard to ignore, playing as it does on our greed, our forgotten generosity and our sense of responsibility -- if we could only figure out to what conclusion that might lead. Imagine if the attention and energy we as a press and a nation focused on Clinton’s sex scandals, or on the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., were now devoted to exploring ways to promote the common good.

With staggering federal deficits behind us (deficits largely caused by President Reagan’s combination of tax cuts and massive defense spending), a projected surplus affords opportunity and leisure to reflect on our values as a society. What should be given back to the people is not the money, but the debate. Good leaders would lead the discussion less with fiscal ideology and political string-pulling and more with vision and an appeal to the long-term good of the country. That has less to do with what is in our pockets and more to do with what is in our hearts and minds.

In late July, political columnist E.J. Dionne offered a hopeful report. The national mood, he said, is shifting away from materialism. Polls are showing, he said, “that Americans want public goods (education, child care and health care especially) at least as much as they want the private goods.”

With that in mind, here are some proposed issues we might explore together:

• Education. School enrollment is expected to surge to 54.3 million in 2008, greatly exacerbating teacher shortages. Can we reinvent our schools to improve quality and safety, and assure, through better pay and other measures, that qualified teachers will enter the field and stay? Can we narrow the gap in student achievement that parallels (and sustains) the economic gap between rich and poor?

• Society’s have-nots. The economy may be booming, but its benefits, like cream (and a disproportionate amount of proposed tax cuts) rise to the top. Whatever the statistical successes of welfare-to-work programs, we hear far less of late about the still-with-us extreme poor. Although welfare rolls had dropped by 48 percent by last March, the average annual earnings of welfare-to-work families were less than $14,000, roughly the poverty line for a family of three.

Further, the number of families who would have to double their incomes just to get even with the poverty line grew after welfare reform, from 13.9 million in 1995 to 14.5 million in 1997. Beyond that, children of low-income working mothers need caring, well-trained adults to assure that they get a good start in life. Are we as interested in assessing and alleviating unmet needs as we are in patting ourselves on the back about declining welfare rolls?

• Health care. The debate over HMOs and patients’ rights often omits a relevant piece of data: that some 44 million Americans lack the capacity to become a patient at all. Are we satisfied with spending 14 percent of our national income on health care while other developed countries manage to insure everyone on an average of 8 percent of their national incomes?

• Nursing home costs. The price tag for one person exceeds $30,000 a year. The cost presents no barrier for the rich nor for those eligible for Medicaid, but for many in the middle, President Clinton’s $1,000 tax credit is almost a joke.

• Public transportation and urban development. The possibilities are limitless.

As for tax cuts for business, if any survive the legislative impasse, what about limiting them to those companies that maintain reasonable proportions in earnings between top management and other employees, including the lowest paid.

With the president’s veto, or without it, may our soul-searching begin.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR special projects editor.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999