Lost Amid Scandal: A Workforce Bill
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 1998; Page A06
With the economy sputtering and millions of Americans jobless, Bill Clinton traveled the country in 1992 promising to put people back to work, in part by trying to "streamline the confusing array of publicly funded training programs" into a far more helpful system for new and dislocated workers.
It was an idea close to his heart, yet one that proved elusive until finally, six years later, he and congressional leaders crafted a compromise and joined together in the Rose Garden last week to sign the Workforce Investment Act of 1998.
Which raises a classic Washington question: If a bill becomes law in the midst of a presidential sex scandal, does anyone hear?
As it turns out, the answer is: not really.
There is a palpable sense of frustration, resignation, even sadness, as White House aides talk about what happened to the job-training bill and how it got lost in the backdraft of the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation. For some, it is symptomatic of where the second Clinton term is going. Little seems to be getting done in the capital these days and when it does it barely causes a ripple.
"On the policy level, it's more important that this gets done," said Rahm Emanuel, Clinton's senior adviser, said after the job-training bill was signed. Then repeating what has become a White House mantra, he added, "From a public relations standpoint, it's one of the casualties of the obsession Washington's had with the Lewinsky matter."
"That's okay. It'll still do a lot of good," said former labor secretary Robert B. Reich, a longtime champion. "But from the standpoint of the administration getting credit for doing something that was so central to the 1992 agenda, the deafening silence is indicative of the times. Nobody's paying much attention."
To be sure, the Lewinsky situation was not the only reason the bill attracted little notice. The economy has improved markedly since 1992, lowering the sense of urgency attached to training issues. The bill-signing also came on the same day two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa and Clinton used the ceremony to condemn the attacks. And both sides involved in crafting the legislation deliberately followed a low-profile strategy to avoid becoming entangled in politics.
But it was a reminder of how much has changed for the Clinton team since those heady days six years ago when Democrats controlled Congress and the administration was not fighting for its survival.
Overhauling federal job training programs was a top Clinton goal outlined in "Putting People First," his 1992 campaign manifesto, and he often pitched his plan for a "G.I. Bill for American workers." But efforts to pass such legislation collapsed in 1994 and again in 1996.
It was brought back to life last year thanks to key Republicans who wanted to reshape training programs with their ideas. By the time it passed last month, Reich's ambitious visions had been scaled back and the "G.I. Bill" moniker was nowhere to be found, but many of the basic ideas were familiar.
Dozens of worker training programs run by different agencies will be consolidated into three separate block grants to states and localities. Workers will be given "individual training accounts" enabling them to choose the type of training most useful to them. "One-stop centers" where people can obtain training, employment services, unemployment insurance and other assistance in the same place will be expanded so that every local area has one.
During his Rose Garden ceremony, Clinton called the legislation "the crowning jewel of a lifetime learning agenda." But the jewel did not shine in the national news media. The Chicago Tribune ran seven paragraphs on the bill-signing and The Washington Post just three, while the New York Times and Los Angeles Times ignored it.
As far as some Republicans were concerned, Clinton did not deserve that much credit anyway. Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, was angry that Clinton took credit, said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), who handled the bill in the House. "The administration really wasn't too much involved in this," said McKeon.
Others disagreed. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who shepherded the bill in the Senate, said Clinton was "absolutely" engaged. In fact, late on the night of the Senate vote, Clinton telephoned Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) from Air Force One to persuade him to drop a last-minute hold on the bill.
"With all the other things being written about in Washington, this probably isn't the most exciting thing to write about," DeWine said. "When you start talking about job training, people's eyes start to glaze over. But the reality is if we're going to compete in the next century, we've got to have a well-trained work force. It's very, very important to our country."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company