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Congress: a C-minus

After 13 years, the Clean Air Act has finally been renewed and strengthened. That and the painfully achieved budget agreement, to cut spending and raise taxes in the face of runaway deficits, were major achievements of the 101st Congress. Another, which came into being with the budget, dramatically extends the government's helping hand to working parents with child care problems. The Clean Air revision was perhaps most remarkable by the strength of its support. For a bill that throughout the Reagan administration could never get to the floor, only 25 House members and 10 senators ended up voting no.

The bill is significant as a long-overdue attempt to fulfill the original promise of the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, 20 years after the act was first adopted, an estimated 150-million people now live in areas where the air they breathe endangers their health. The revision will set wide-ranging goals for reduction of automobile exhaust, utility plant emissions, industrial releases, and toxic chemicals.

In Congress, the clean-air revision is a credit to the leadership of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. In the White House, President Bush will need to do more than sign the bill. His Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have to be aggressive if this nation is finally to clear the air.

Something else to be cheered is the sweeping child-care package that was approved as part of the final budget package. For the first time since World War II, Congress has acknowledged in a meaningful way that low-income families need help in balancing jobs and child care.

The legislation will provide $2.5-billion over three years in grants to states to expand existing child-care programs such as Head Start, provide before- and after-school care and direct subsidies to poor parents. It also earmarks $1.5-billion over five years to boost welfare-reform child-care measures.

The package includes $13-billion over five years to make more generous the earned income tax credit to poor families. This credit is not tied directly to child-care services and therefore can help families with a parent staying home to care for their own children. Low-income families will also be eligible for a health-care credit of up to $500 that can go toward their health-insurance premiums.

A significant feature of the measure that will benefit all families who use child-care services regardless of income requires that states use 5 percent of the funds they receive to increase the quality of child-care services.

In various forms, the legislation was stalled for four years in Washington. The final version was a historic effort, though some desirable elements were lost and some dubious ones survived, including a provision making religiously affiliated care centers eligible for the new public money.

In addressing the budget, Congress also expanded Medicaid eligibility for children in poverty and imposed deep cuts on the runaway Star Wars program in a way that should preclude the administration from making a premature deployment decision. Other 11th-hour successes include a new immigration law that enlarges quotas for skilled workers and reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts without any of the provisos sought by Jesse Helms and his allies. In its first session, of course, Congress had finally faced up to the disaster in the savings and loan industry, authorizing a bailout that may eventually cost $500-billion in principal and interest.

On balance, however, Congress' failures outnumbered its successes. At the end, members lacked the will or the courage _ if not both _ to put enough up-front money into the savings and loan rescue, which will put off the closing of some dead thrifts and add to the cost in the long run. What was to have been a major crime bill wound up as much less, shamefully silent on handgun control.

Congress passed good civil rights and family leave legislation but couldn't override President Bush's indefensible vetoes. The voice of the cable television industry once again proved louder, or at least more persuasive, than the complaints of overcharged and underserved customers. Congress failed to restore even a little of the regulatory power it stripped from states and local governments several years ago. Similarly, the automobile industry prevailed on the Senate not to toughen gasoline mileage standards.

In its most disgraceful failure, Congress went home without final action on campaign finance reform, thereby assuring that most incumbents will continue to go without effective opposition and assuring also that there will be more scandals such as that of the "Keating Five," the senators who pressured federal regulators on behalf of a large contributor in the savings and loan industry. The Senate Ethics Committee members couldn't even make up their minds on how to handle their cases, and will call them back for hearings later this month. In another surrender on the ethics front, the Senate could not find a way to make senators stop taking honorariums from special interests for speeches and other personal appearances. If the House can put a stop to it, why can't the Senate?

There was no progress toward a national comprehensive health care system, despite all that has been said and written about the 37-million Americans who are uninsured or the rising expenses that threaten to make health care unaffordable for many millions more. It wasn't so much the cost of a national health care system that scared members off, but what it would cost them in terms of campaign contributions from the medical and insurance industries. When it comes to Congress, money is indeed the root of all evil.

The 101st may have passed its final exams, but its grade for the course is a C-minus.