A date with the deal makers 

Big Sky agendas on Capitol Hill

Montana's congressional delegates reflect on the calm before the storm

Capitol Hill pundits are still waiting for the real bloodletting to begin this year. On the surface at least, congeniality appears to be the rule in Congress this session.

By the time Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Conrad Burns (R), and Rep. Rick Hill (R) got on the airplanes which flew them back to Big Sky country for their August break, having earned the first part of their combined $400,000 yearly salaries, each had voted at least 200 times, and spent countless hours in committee hearings and lunch meetings, where most of the gritty work of deal making is done.

But for all the wheeling and dealing, outside of the move to oust Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, things on the Hill were fairly copacetic.

The proposals presented to the 105th Congress ranged from relaxing restrictions on tuna importers and outlawing so-called partial birth abortions, to increasing money for veterans' health care programs and revising requirements for public housing.

In the meantime, federal offices stayed open; all 535 legislators agreed to a budget bill that President Clinton found palatable enough to sign into law; environmental and public assistance reforms were kept to a minimum; Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan found himself too occupied by post-nuptial bliss to tinker much with interest rates.

Yet, the alliance between Washington D.C.'s donkeys and elephants is an uneasy one.

Republicans are holding hostage dozens of Clinton's judicial appointments, Baucus points out-a situation that he says the Democrats won't let slide for long. A simmering turf battle over trade-agreement authority between congressional lawmakers and the Clinton administration threatens to boil over this fall.

And plans to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act this session could leave the floor of the Capitol covered in blood, satisfying the vultures in the gallery.

On their trips out West (a summer vacation which ended after the Labor Day holiday), all three of Montana's lawmakers took a few minutes to talk with the Independent.

Fresh in everyone's mind was the new tax deal. Each congressman claims credit for inserting provisions that they say will help average Montanans. And all three also shared their views on the year-old welfare reform and its repercussions. And finally, each talked about issues that affect public lands.

Taxes and spending
"People who pay the most taxes are the wealthiest, therefore they received the most tax reductions. The question is, are the reductions disproportionate to the taxes they're already paying?"
-Sen. Max Baucus

In early August, Sen. Max Baucus met with about 50 political and business leaders over a breakfast of rolls and coffee in the Reserve Street 4B's conference room in Missoula.

On the agenda was a 33-page explanation of the new tax reform bill, projected on an overhead screen with narration by Baucus. Many of those present had hard questions for the Senator about the deal's long-term implications for businesses and individuals in Montana.

"Both sides decided that it makes more sense to do things together," Baucus told the crowd. "It's not all a bed of roses because some of these provisions actually further complicate the tax code.

"And to some degree, though less than before, these are back-loaded-some of the tax and deduction provisions will take a few years to kick in, making it more difficult to balance the budget in later years."

As he continued, the senator extolled the virtues of a number of provisions in the new law: a $1.3 million exemption for family-owned businesses; a reduction in capital gains taxes (which, according to Baucus' figures, will save the average $41,200-earning family a total of $1,250 in taxes on a capital gains of $25,000); a 100 percent health insurance deduction for the self-employed, to be phased in over 10 years; and a handful of credits designed to ease the cost of college.

In a phone interview about a week later, Sen. Conrad Burns weighed in on behalf of the deal as well.

He praised the $500 per child tax credit, saying "that's $200 million that will come into the state and the decision of how to spend it will be made around the breakfast table, not the conference table."

Burns took credit for a provision that will allow farmers and ranchers to do "income averaging," so that they can pay taxes based on their average income over three-year periods, lessening the burden of trying to make it in an unstable, unpredictable field.

"I fought to get income averaging because it's especially good for young farmers," Burns says. "When you get a good crop one year, that let's you hang on to some of that money, amass some capital for the hard times."

Burns also defended the capital gains tax cut, estimated by an oft-quoted nonprofit to keep $37 billion out of the public coffers between 2003 and 2007.

In the House, Montana's freshman Republican Rep. Rick Hill praised the capital gains and estate tax cuts as well. Like Burns, he says he was the one pushing for income averaging.

But Montana legislators' enthusiasm is not universally shared. An analysis of the numbers by Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, was quoted in the Aug. 3 Washington Post as showing that under the new deal, "just one-fourth of the tax relief will go to people making less than $100,000 a year. More than a third of all the tax breaks will go to the top one percent."

The wealth is spread a little more evenly in Montana than in other states. Middle income folks here rank among the top ten states for the amount they will get in tax breaks, according to a state-by-state analysis provided by the CTJ's web site. Those Montanans earning between $20,000 and $75,000 a year will get an average $440 break-the sixth highest in the country.

Baucus admits that the question of how tax cuts are distributed is troubling. The Senate voted on the measure, he says, before any such analysis was available.

In retrospect, however, he says he has concluded that the law is fair. "People who pay the most taxes are the wealthiest, therefore they received the most tax reductions," he says. "The question is, are the reductions disproportionate to the taxes they're already paying?"

Burns brusquely brushes off the CTJ's figures: "If those are the people making the money, then so be it. We have to expand the economy which allows job opportunities to surface. The only place you can get tax relief is for the people and entities who are paying taxes.

"One problem with the Washington Post is that they are great promoters of distributing wealth-tax 'em more and give it to the drones."

Robert McIntyre, director of the CTJ, says both Baucus and Burns are off-base in their conclusions.

"The estate tax break only goes to a couple percentages of decedents each year," he says. "And capital gains breaks go almost entirely to the well-off. You've gotta have capital to pay capital gains. Those parts of the bills targeted very well-off people and that's why a high proportion of the cuts go to the wealthy."

And McIntyre comes to the opposite conclusion of Baucus: "Unless you don't think other portions of the population are paying any taxes, then no, it's not proportional."

Wild lands and public laws

"It's awfully hard to deal with some of these wacko groups. They never seem to know when to push and when to pull. It's very easy to lose your patience."
-Sen. Conrad Burns

Reforming the federal law that protects dying species has proven nearly impossible to achieve on Capitol Hill. The 1972 Endangered Species Act has been in limbo for the past four years, when its original authorization expired in 1993. Since then, the feds have simply worked under extensions of the old law, while lawmakers haggle over details with each other, and with logging and mining companies, wise-use groups and the like, watched closely all the while by environmental lobbyists.

But, Baucus proclaims, this fall-by the end of September, maybe mid-October-the Senate will pass a new Endangered Species Act.

"We're very close," he says. "It's even-handed, balancing common sense-not extreme in either direction."

The proposal Baucus refers to was hammered out by Western senators in an effort that culminated at the end of July in a late-night meeting attended by Baucus, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and Sens. John Chafee (R-RI), Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) and Harry Reid (D-NV).

It will provide, Baucus claims, "incentives to landowners to protect habitat, and more opportunity for state involvement in developing plans."

Burns, reflecting his longtime pro-industry stance, expresses guarded support for Baucus' proposal. Alluding to a controversy earlier this summer between some of the parties negotiating the ESA reauthorization, he points out that it's a time-intensive process.

The likelihood of anything passing, he says, is dependent upon the as-yet unreleased details. "We've got to change the law. We have to do something to make it more user friendly so we're gonna have to make some incentives for property owners.

"But it's awfully hard to deal with some of these wacko groups. They never seem to know when to push and when to pull. It's very easy to lose your patience."

One problem the bill will have to take into account, Burns says, is jurisdictional conflicts of the sort that led to the bison slaughter this past winter.

"Here in Montana, the state has jurisdiction over management of wildlife. On the other hand, the federal government owns the land where most of the summer habitat is, and therein lies the rub" he says. "Babbitt jumped down my throat over this bison issue, but he sets policy in the park and we set policy on state lands, on livestock issues."

The Senate is likely to take the lead in promoting Endangered Species Act reform, says Hill, who sits on the House's Natural Resource committee.

"There've been a lot of difficulties in our committee in trying to craft a measure in the past in such a way so as to gain the broad support necessary to pass something," he says. "If the Senate can get a bill passed, it's reasonable to think we can do something in the House. And hopefully, I'll be able to play a significant role in trying to help Congress collaborate on the issue."

Jasper Carlton, of the Boulder, Colo.-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, says the final bill will probably represent a compromise between a current proposal by Chafee and Kempthorne, and a more environmentally-friendly bill sponsored by Sen. George Miller (D-CA).

Carlton's group, which currently has 30 cases pending in federal court and claims a 98 percent success rate, has probably brought and won more ESA lawsuits than any other environmental organization in the country. As it is, he says, there's so little money available for enforcing the federal law that there's no difference on the ground between no reauthorization and a new, bad law.

Chafee and Reid, Carlton explains, have traditionally been willing to work with environmentalists. With Baucus as a swing vote, he says there's some reason to hope that a new Endangered Species Act will be a decent one.

The tone of the compromise, he says, will come down to the Clinton administration's stance-one Carlton says is likely to do great damage to the law.

Fine tuning welfare reforms

"With high crime, drug use, an insufficient number of appropriate role models, it's hard to get out of public housing. So one goal is to allow for more mixed-income."
-Rep. Rick Hill

Montana lawmakers are adding their voices to those who proclaim that welfare reform is an unqualified success. As the controversial overhaul-which put a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits and yanked disability benefits away from thousands of people-celebrates its first birthday, Congress has largely contented itself with minor tinkering.

Legislators restored some benefits to legal immigrants-a move that Baucus says was important. They also ensured that welfare-to-work jobs would pay minimum wage.

Burns voted with the majority to kill a proposal that would have allowed welfare recipients to enroll in two years of vocation training instead of one, while still receiving benefits. Burns defended his vote against this measure, saying it would have provided a disincentive to enter the job market.

"Where we're remiss as representatives is that when we get involved in making public policy, we tend to take worst case scenarios and pass legislation to deal with that particular situation," he says.

"I never go to a hearing where I don't hear about the woman with 17 kids, the house burned down, her husband's a truck driver and the dog died," he says. "People can and do take night classes and still work. I met a couple in Great Falls the other day doing just that."

Hill, as well, waxes enthusiastically about the need to rout fraud from the system. But unlike the senators, Hill talks at length about the reforms he says are still needed. Public housing, job training and food stamps programs are all rife with corruption, he claims.

A credit-card system, already in use in some states, could help stop food-stamp fraud, Hill speculates. And streamlining eligibility criteria for all programs, he says, might increase administrative efficiency and make it easier to track individuals who get more than what's coming to them.

House members put considerable time into the Housing Opportunity and Responsibility Act of 1997, passed by representatives in mid-May. Included in the bill, Hill says, are measures that would improve the quality of life in public housing developments, making it easier for those who live there to get out on their own.

"As it stands, there's little incentive to get out. We're trying to create a different mix of neighbors, get rid of housing ghettos," he says. "With high crime, drug use, an insufficient number of appropriate role models, it's hard to get out of public housing. So one goal is to allow for more mixed-income."

Cheri Honkala, co-chair of the National Welfare Rights Union, describes the measure in less glowing terms.

Specifically, she says, the proposal Hill refers to would put public housing developments up for sale to private owners, with the goal of moving more affluent people into those neighborhoods.

The House bill would also revoke permanent public housing permits for so-called "section eight" recipients-approximately 8.5 million people (many who are either elderly or disabled, Honkala says) who have been judged to need a lifetime of care.

"The bill would put those people on time limits, similar to the lifetime limits for other types of welfare," she says. "The idea is to encourage people to move into home ownership, but we're talking about people who are barely eking out a survival, and the idea of home ownership is way beyond their situation."

But while Hill says he is sympathetic, those who cheat the system have forced the changes, he says.

According to Montana's lone representative, "The whole point here is that some people have a serious need for a lifetime of benefits, but there are folks who manipulate the system. The idea is to take out the economic benefits associated with those types of fraud."

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