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Nation: Congress Moves-A Little

4 minute read

Action on civil service reform, hospital costs and ERA

With final adjournment only two months away, the pace of activity sped up in Congress last week. Among the results:

Civil Service Reform. To improve the federal bureaucracy’s efficiency, Carter proposed that hiring and firing procedures be streamlined for the Government’s 2.8 million civil service employees. For high-level bureaucrats, he also recommended greater use of salary incentives based on job performance. Last week the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee approved a bill, but only after it had been substantially rewritten under pressure from lobbyists for Government employees. The committee cut back the incentive program to a two-year experiment and limited it to three agencies, to be designated by the Administration. It proposed amending the Hatch Act to permit federal employees to take an active role in partisan politics, a step opposed by Carter who called the committee’s votes “very adverse.”

Still. Arizona Democrat Morris Udall, who is managing the legislation for the Administration, is confident that the objectionable sections can be eliminated on the House floor. Said he: “My whole strategy was simply to get out a bill.”

Subsidized Housing. The Administration had asked for a 1979 appropriation of $31 billion to subsidize housing for the poor and the elderly. But the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee added amendments that would have cost the Government an additional $8 billion. Last week, by a vote of 60 to 21, the Senate cut it back to what the Administration had originally proposed.

In a reversal of political stereotypes, several Republicans—including Massachusetts’ Edward Brooke, Pennsylvania’s John Heinz III and New York’s Jacob Javits—supported the increased spending. Argued Brooke: “It is cruel to look to our lowest-income citizens as the front line in the battle against inflation.”

Hospital Costs. Carter has proposed limiting increases in hospital costs to 9% a year. They soared last year by almost 16%, a pace that has slowed a bit this year, to an average increase of 12.7%, a decrease helped in part by the threat of cost-curbing legislation. In a surprise move, Illinois Democrat Marty Russo defected from the Carter camp, enabling the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee to vote 22 to 21 against mandatory hospital cost controls. Instead, the committee endorsed voluntary efforts by hospitals to cut costs. The panel also approved a national commission—with no enforcement powers—to monitor medical costs. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano bitterly blamed the defeat on Russo, who changed his views after lobbying by members of the Illinois Hospital Association.

Endangered Species. Because of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, federal officials were forced to suspend work on the $116 million Tellico Dam in eastern Tennessee to protect the snail darter, a rare species of three-inch perch. Last week the Senate voted to open a loophole in the act by authorizing a new Cabinet-level committee that could grant exemptions from the law in cases of “irresolvable conflict.” The provision was opposed by the Administration, but was accepted reluctantly by leaders of environmental groups, who were warned by Tennessee Republican Howard Baker that if “common sense” was not written into the law, political pressures would mount until “the act itself would expire.” Administration officials will now fight the Baker loophole in the House.

ERA Extension. Still three states short of the 38 needed for final approval of the Equal Rights Amendment, proponents originally asked Congress to extend the March 22 deadline for ratification by another seven years. But even with the help of last-minute phone calls to wavering legislators from Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford, the bill seemed headed for defeat in the House Judiciary Committee. Supporters proposed a compromise: an extension of three years and three months. Then, to their surprise, they lost a crucial vote when a reluctant ally, Harold S. Sawyer of Michigan, said that he would vote no to anything less than seven years.

Committee Chairman Peter Rodino Jr. promptly called a 15-min. recess, and colleagues pressed Sawyer to change his mind. But he remained adamant. “It’s a delicate ego problem,” said New Jersey Republican Millicent Fenwick, after pleading with Sawyer. “He’s terribly angry. He says he’s been over-lobbied.” When the committee reconvened, Sawyer did indeed vote against the compromise. But Nevada Democrat Jim Santini left the room; in his absence the compromise extension squeaked through, 17 to 16.

Now the Rules Committee must decide, probably by mid-August, whether the ERA proposal will be brought to the floor. Senate opposition to the extension is even stronger, and conservative Senators threaten an anti-ERA filibuster ∙

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