When the Older Americans Act was passed in 1965, the vote in the House was 395 in favor and one (a Republican) opposed. From then on, until the last reauthorization vote in 1992, the act has enjoyed almost unanimous support: Congressional Democrats have cast 3,143 votes in favor of it and 15 votes against. Congressional Republicans have cast 1,975 votes in favor and 125 votes against.

The last reauthorization was for four years, taking the act through fiscal year 1995. Since the 1995 takeover of Congress by the Republicans, however, the act has failed to win reauthorization. Instead, it has become a splendid example of how conservative Republicans are trying to undermine some of the most effective and admired programs that help needy citizens. It is also an example of how the Republicans can take a program that enjoys almost unmatched support and turn it into a political football.

This fall, the House Education and Workforce Committee had to pull its proposal to reauthorize the act from the House floor after it became clear it had no chance of passage. The bill was so controversial that 34 national organizations concerned with the aging opposed it.

Republicans have attempted to gut the programs in a number of ways.

Initially, they tried to weaken the language that targets aging services to those who have the greatest social or income needs, particularly low-income minorities. When they realized that wouldn't fly, they tried to trade off that idea for a greater emphasis on the rural elderly and for having seniors share the cost of some of the programs.

States want to be able to charge senior citizens user fees as a way of raising more money to provide more services. Meals on Wheels, for example, has raised millions of dollars in private contributions that have greatly extended the reach of the program. But voluntary contributions are a far different matter than charging elderly clients fees.

David Affeldt, former chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Aging who now is a consultant for several national aging organizations, says they are adamantly opposed to cost sharing because it will be construed as a means test, with fees charged to people above a certain income level. "One of the great benefits of the act is that it has not had a demeaning means test, which can be a source of embarrassment to people who have limited income. Older people are proud. The tendency is if there are fees charged, they will just stay away."

Furthermore, he says, the organizations objected to charging users fees because they believed that approach would provide an incentive for services to be relocated to areas where people could pay. Thus, health screening clinics could gravitate from Anacostia to Georgetown. "The impact is that you're going to provide situations where the minority community and the low-income community are less likely to be served."

Republicans also targeted the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a part of the Older Americans Act that provides funds for training older workers and placing them in jobs. Under the current formula, about 78 percent of the funding for that program goes to such national organizations as AARP, the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, the National Council on the Aging and Green Thumb, which serves the rural elderly. The remainder of the funding goes to states for their training and job placement programs. Republicans wanted to shift more money to the states and away from the national aging organizations, by reducing the national organizations' share to 55 percent over a five-year period. This, of course, would create havoc in the job training and placement programs. Moreover, the programs' record of accomplishment hardly justifies such a shift.

"The national sponsors have outperformed the states on every standard," says Affeldt. They have done much better at placing people in unsubsidized jobs in the private sector, for example. "They have lower per-unit costs than the states, so they have more people participating."

Behind this effort to overhaul the act is a long-felt annoyance in conservative Republican ranks with the National Council of Senior Citizens. The council is one of the most vocal advocates for the aging and runs many employment and training programs supported by the act. Among the council's arsenal of political weapons is a rating system that tracks how members of Congress vote on aging issues. Democrats, as might be expected, do better than Republicans.

Another bit of Republican mischief was an effort to fold the training and research projects as a distinct program and roll it into the administrative arm of the Older Americans Act, diminishing its visibility and importance. What's wrong with this is that the training and research projects have been the seedbed for some of the most successful programs for the elderly, including the foster grandparents program and nutrition programs.

Congress has continued to appropriate money for the programs created by the Older Americans Act--about $1.4 billion for fiscal 2000--even while Congress is unable to resolve how it wants these programs run.

Senior citizens' organizations believe it is better to have no authorizing legislation that would control how these programs are run than to have legislation that undercuts fundamental principles of an act that has served seniors so well. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) has a bill, with about 230 co-sponsors, that would continue the act's basic principles. The vehicle for getting this show back on the road is there, but in a measure of the Republicans' failure to govern effectively, they seem unwilling to use it.