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If You Think You Made a Mistake in 1992, Think Again

Assessing the first two years of the Clinton presidency

U.S. President, Bill Clinton, South Lawn, White House

U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses a crowd of law enforcement officials on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1994.

ROBERT GIROUX/AFP/Getty Images

At least since the passing of FDR, it has been a cliché – and a lament – in American politics that change occurs only at the margins. Big talk seldom leads to big change. In eight years, Ronald Reagan, who boldly promised to destroy government as we knew it, managed only to enlarge it. (The task of shrinking it, oddly enough, has been undertaken by Bill Clinton.) Clinton’s own failings as president are well known. Elected with a less-than-Dukakis-size 43 percent of the vote, he has reduced rather than widened the circle of faith in his leadership. Welfare reform, the one ace we are told remains up the president’s sleeve, represents another potential disaster, inviting both a congressional competition to draft the most punitive measures and the contempt of voters upon discovering that reform is more expensive than a status quo they deem too costly.

But a study of the margins of the Clinton administration, those distant edges of government infrequently visited by the press, confirms a fact that is not always obvious: It does make a difference whether the president is Democrat or Republican, Bill Clinton or George Bush. In some cases, such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the increase in the budget for food stamps and childhood immunizations, Clinton has achieved results that are strikingly tangible. In others, such as changes in the regulatory process, in public access to information, in the incremental steps taken toward sensible gun control, the consequences are less easily discernible. But they are potent nonetheless.

We may not have universal health care or a public-works program to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, but substantive, largely positive change is occurring. And small change is better than none.

Budget and Tax Policy

The sprawling, $6.5 trillion American economy is only minimally subject to presidential control. But the federal budget and tax policy are far more sensitive to White House influence. Perhaps the greatest reversal of 12 years of Republican rule has been Clinton’s dramatic reintroduction of progressivity to the tax code. Under Reagan, taxes on the wealthy were slashed while government spending ballooned, shifting the burden of payment to the middle class and the poor and, in the form of burgeoning government debt, to future taxpayers. The tax provisions of the budget-reconciliation bill Clinton signed into law on Aug. 10, 1993, after a narrow victory in Congress, are “the most progressive of any major piece of tax legislation in decades,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The legislation significantly raised income taxes on the wealthiest 1.2 percent of Americans, contributing a projected $124.5 billion to the federal Treasury over five years. The rest of the population was hit with a 4.3-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, which costs the average driver 54 cents a week. When Republicans howl that Clinton is soaking the middle class, they’re talking about an average of $28 a year.

As significant as the tax hike on the rich was the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the poor, an $18.3 billion increase over five years to lift working Americans with families to the poverty line. Depending upon your vantage point the program is either a subsidy to low-wage workers or a subsidy to employers lacking either the means or the morals to pay a living wage. In any case, by 1996, when the EITC is fully phased in, it will provide a tax cut for 15 million families. As a result, the credit received by a family with one full-time minimum-wage earner and at least two children will increase from $1,998 to $3,370.

Essentially, the Clinton budget took from the few very rich, gave to the many very poor and left the bulk of the middle class more or less scrambling in place on a craggy slope formed by declining wages and rising job insecurity. Spurred by the Perot vote and its effects on a jittery Congress, the budget plan did succeed in cutting the deficit significantly. The plan is expected to shave $700 billion from the still-growing national debt between 1994 and 1998. You can argue with Clinton’s bait-and-switch – he promised investment; we got deficit reduction – but sooner or later the nation had to confront its debt. Clinton and the 103rd Congress did.

The Environment

Clinton’s record on the environment is somewhat confusing. There have been false starts, such as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s unsuccessful attempts to move serious grazing and mining reform past recalcitrant Western senators and the promising but inconclusive powwow called the timber summit. There have been Bushlike appeals to industry to follow “voluntary” guidelines on reducing emissions that contribute to global warming. There has been surprisingly little rhetoric: The president rarely mentions environmental issues, much less promotes them. As Daniel J. Weiss of Sierra Club notes, “It’s hard to point to any single accomplishment where President Clinton invested his political capital in behalf of an environmental agenda.”

But. Babbitt has been tenacious in pursuing grazing reform, and some modest improvements, including a small increase in the fee charged for grazing on public lands, will likely result. Meanwhile, two widely divergent mining-reform bills have been passed by the House and the Senate. How a conference committee rectifies Rep. George Miller’s genuine reform bill and Sen. Larry Craig’s industry-sponsored sham will determine whether the administration will get at least a portion of the improvements it desires in the outdated 1872 mining law.

A number of other administration initiatives promise more certain benefits. Though Vice President Gore broke his very public vow to close the Waste Technologies Industries hazardous-waste incinerator in Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on new rules to control the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns, a dangerous practice that was essentially unregulated in the past.

Clinton has used the power of executive orders to great effect, as well. One such order requires federal facilities to reduce toxic emissions 50 percent by 1999. Another executive order commits the federal government to purchasing paper products containing at least 20 percent recycled materials by the end of this year and at least 30 percent by 1998. Because of the government’s enormous purchasing power, the order has already stimulated demand for recycled products. In addition, alternative-fuel vehicles are being phased in to federal fleets, and federal buildings are installing new energy-efficient technology to save water and electricity. When the conversion is completed, the new technology is expected to save $1 billion a year in energy costs.

Much of the administration’s environmental business still lies before it. The Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and Superfund legislation all are up for renewal. The fruits of the administration’s clean-car initiative, the result of Clinton’s pact with the Big Three automakers, remain to be seen. (Entrepreneurs who feel they were shut out of the deal argue that putting the Big Three in charge, given their multibillion-dollar stakes in “dirty” technology, guarantees foot dragging.) It seems almost certain, however, that Superfund, the waste-cleanup program, will not be seriously weakened. Similarly, if Congress should finally pass the California Desert Protection Act after an eight-year struggle, Clinton, unlike Bush, would sign it.

A critical question, what Sierra Club’s Weiss calls “the gut check” for this administration on the environment, appeared to have been resolved in mid-September when EPA administrator Carol Browner announced the agency’s intention to approve a petition by 12 states seeking stricter air-pollution restrictions. A coalition of states from Maine to Virginia had petitioned the EPA for permission to adopt guidelines similar to California’s clean-car standards, which require that by 1998 zero-emission vehicles account for 2 percent of new car sales, rising to 10 percent by 2003. In addition, California mandates increasingly strict emission standards on conventional gas-powered cars. Granting the Eastern states’ petition will put pressure on car makers to clean up their products and, consequently, our air.

Social Policy

If Clinton’s mark on environmental policy is a little smudged and hard to discern, the impact of his presidency on a wide swath of social policy – from expanded immunization programs to the enactment of the Brady Bill – has been much better defined.

On abortion, for instance, Clinton overturned the Bush administration’s “gag rule,” which prohibited federally funded clinics from informing clients about abortion services, and the administration has quietly encouraged the testing and eventual licensing of the abortion pill RU-486. With his appointments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court, Clinton presumably solidified the abortion-rights majority on the high court. Internationally, Clinton reversed the Reagan-Bush policy that denied population-planning aid to nations where abortion is a legal form of birth control.

The administration increased funding of Head Start from $2.8 billion in 1993 to $3.3 billion in 1994, with a larger increase projected for 1995. This year’s extra funding allows another 31,000 preschool children between ages 3 and 5 to take advantage of the program’s comprehensive social services.

By the end of the 1980s the infant mortality rate in the United States was comparable to the rate in several of the fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe, and considerably fewer than three-quarters of American preschoolers had been immunized for measles, polio, diphtheria and tetanus. The Bush White House, like Reagan’s before it, did not consider this an emergency. To its credit, the Clinton administration has acted. Childhood-immunization funds were raised significantly, from $341 million in 1993 to $528 million in 1994, with an additional $360 million requested on top of that for 1995.

As part of last year’s budget, major provisions of the Mickey Leland Childhood Hunger Relief Act were signed into law, easing access to food stamps. The bill increases food-stamp benefits by roughly $2.5 billion over five years, raising benefits, for instance, for 1.5 million households with children where the rent is not subsidized and more than half of family income is spent on housing.

After Republicans spent the past decade loudly championing the idea of empowerment zones, Clinton is actually prepared to fund a few. Urban and rural areas in economic distress are competing for $2.5 billion in tax breaks and another $1 billion in social-service block grants. Instead of dispersing the money so widely that it has little effect, the administration is concentrating it by promising $100 million grants to six urban zones; $40 million grants to three rural zones; and as much as $3 million in community grants to nearly 100 other locales. Because areas have to compete for the grants, the lure of federal money has helped local political and business interests to organize. In Chicago, for instance, banks agreed to make $100 million in loans for construction of low-income housing in designated zones.

The administration also launched a broad assault on cigarettes, putting tobacco companies in a defensive crouch. Though Republicans can read a surgeon general’s report as easily as Democrats, they have never acted on one. The smoking debate has changed so much in the past two years that Food and Drug administrator David Kessler now says he is considering regulating nicotine as a drug.

And then there are guns. More than any previous president, Clinton, aided by the mounting blood bath across the nation, has exercised the moral responsibility to face the nation’s most peculiar obsession. The Brady Bill is no panacea, but it is an important step. And although the ban on 19 assault weapons included in the crime bill will likely have little or no impact on life and death in America, Clinton, who stuck with the ban against the recommendations of congressional leaders, deserves credit for bringing a ban on all assault weapons that much closer.

Labor

In his first days in office, Clinton changed the tenor of the government’s relations with organized labor. He abolished the Council on Competitiveness, an officially sanctioned back door to the White House through which businesses and industries seeking to evade environmental and labor regulations could count on a sympathetic hearing from Vice President Dan Quayle. And Clinton rescinded two Bush executive orders that had been backed by the anti-labor National Right to Work Committee and were designed to frustrate union organizing and operations.

Besides negating the negatives, Clinton took positive action, signing the Family and Medical Leave Act into law. The law, which had been vetoed by Bush, requires companies with 50 or more employees to allow workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually in order to care for a newborn or adopted child or a sick family member. Since most workers can’t afford to take time off without a very compelling reason, the law has not resulted in chaos at the workplace or catastrophic expenses to business, as opponents had predicted. But it has enabled some workers to make it through a tough time.

In a departure from the previous 12 years, the Department of Labor is actually enforcing labor laws. In August the department ruled in favor of two whistle-blowers who were blacklisted after reporting safety and environmental violations by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It ordered the company to reimburse the employees’ lost earnings. And last spring, Labor Secretary Robert Reich flew to Oklahoma to slap a controversial fine on Dayton Tire for alleged workplace safety violations.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, one of the most detested bureaucracies in government, is busy trying to reinvent itself. OSHA inspectors have streamlined their own paperwork, leading to a 12 percent increase in productivity, according to William Spriggs, director designate of the National Commission for Employment Policy. Inspectors no longer receive promotions based on the number of citations they write and have begun attempting to help businesses avoid citations. Last May, Clinton signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act for youth. The program, administered jointly by the Labor and Education departments, is intended to help states set up systems linking schools and workplaces, providing students with applied learning, employment opportunities and on-the-job training. The program received $100 million in funding this year, and the administration has requested $300 million for 1995. While it’s too soon to tell whether the program will be effective even in so small a dose, its very existence indicates that the administration views the fate of non-college-educated workers, a group whose wages have been declining precipitously in the past two decades, as a worthy national interest.

Finally, the administration has an ambitious goal of restructuring the nation’s obsolete unemployment system. “What we inherited was an unemployment system set up in the 1930s, set up to provide for temporary unemployment or seasonal layoffs,” says Lawrence Katz, who was the Labor Department’s chief economist before returning to Harvard University in September. “Now most unemployed people need to find other jobs.” Funds for training programs for the unemployed rose from $500 million in 1993 to $1.1 billion in 1994. “The key thing we’ve done is integrate unemployment with the training system,” says Katz. “The big problem in the past was no one even thought about training until the unemployment benefits had been exhausted.” The results are not in on “re-employment.” But at least the program attempts to address serious needs. George Bush never would have proposed it.

Education

The Department of Education has long been one of the backwater bureaucracies of the federal government. Since education is largely a state and local matter, its mandate has always been a bit hazy. But Secretary Richard Riley turned down a Supreme Court nomination in order to continue leading the department, so he must see some redeeming qualities there.

Riley is the champion of the administration’s Goals 2000 education reform, which Clinton signed into law last March. Initially funded with only $105 million, the reform offers federal aid to states that agree to adopt stricter academic standards. (The administration hopes to distribute $700 million in 1995.) The legislation established a panel to recommend standards in 10 subject areas as well as new examinations to measure student achievement. It also created a panel to develop skill standards for select occupational groups. The idea is to require high-school students to master specific facts and skills before going on to college or a job. It is the most ambitious federal education reform attempted in decades.

For college students, the administration is changing the rules in student lending. The administration is gradually cutting bankers out of the lucrative, no-risk business of student loans by making loans available directly from the federal government. Moreover, the administration has adopted a repayment plan based on income. So if a college grad with a mound of student debt decides to work as a social worker helping the homeless, the loan can be repaid over many years as a small percentage of income.

Defense

There is not much new in the Defense Department under Clinton. His five-year budget cuts $100 million more than Bush intended. More significantly, Clinton agreed to a comprehensive nuclear-test ban. The administration has increased federal research-and-development funds while decreasing the military’s share. It has invested $625 million in defense conversion and dual-use technology, seeking ways to make military technology and spinoffs commercially viable.

Civil Rights

The Clinton Administration is pursuing civil-rights cases that the previous two administrations were happy to let slide. In August, for example, the Justice Department accepted a consent decree in a lending-discrimination case against Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank. While denying wrongdoing, the bank agreed to make $140 million in home loans in predominantly black neighborhoods over the next five years, to invest $11 million more in such neighborhoods and to spend $4 million opening new branches. The case sends a message to the banking industry about the administration’s tolerance of redlining minority neighborhoods. In another case symbolic of increased federal commitment, Justice joined with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros in forcing the racial integration of an all-white public housing project in Vidor, Texas, over the virulent objections of local racists.

The Federal Bureaucracy

Last year’s Federal Register, the size of which offers a rough gauge of regulatory activity, was the third largest in history, trailing only the registers of Jimmy Carter’s last two years in office. While more regulation is not necessarily good regulation, it does show the administration’s commitment to reverse the business-at-any-cost anarchy of the previous 12 years. To this end, the Office of Management and Budget, which under Reagan and Bush served as a burial ground for proposed regulations resented by business, has been reborn. Clinton has ordered OMB to conclude its reviews of proposed regulations within 90 days or state why the review cannot be concluded. This may seem a tedious detail, but it is also the guts of government.

In changes stemming from Vice President Gore’s “reinventing government” initiative, managers are being encouraged to make commercial purchases, bypassing the red tape and excessive prices typical of government procurement.

Access to information is also being enhanced. Electronic Securities and Exchange Commission filings are now available to the public on the Internet, and small businesses can tap into the government-procurement process online. In the past, accessing such vital information was prohibitively difficult. In the most dramatic example of openness, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary has released government documents detailing crude radiation experiments that were performed on American citizens. The Energy Department has been more forthcoming with information across a broad spectrum. “There have been some quite significant changes,” says Beverly Gattis, president of Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping, a citizens’ group that has been fighting battles around the Energy Department’s Pantex nuclear facility. “The plant managers here are more interested in cooperating. They are reluctant to have us get back to headquarters that we’re not getting cooperation.”

To Americans living near government nuclear facilities, that’s change.

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