WITH ONE EYE on the unemployment rate and the other on the November elections, the White House last week threw its full support behind a job-training bill that had been languishing in a Senate-House conference. The administration noted, correctly, that this new-found enthusiasm was not inconsistent with its earlier expressed scorn for a House-passed jobs bill. The House measure would have created jobs for unemployed workers, while the bill favored by the administration would simply train workers for jobs that become available.
The irony is that the job-training bill -- which would replace the training parts of the expiring CETA program -- could have passed months ago had it not been for the intransigence of top Labor Department officials. Early last spring, the Senate Labor Committee developed a bipartisan bill capturing the important elements in the administration's approach--more private-sector involvement, more control by state governors over local programs and no public-service jobs.
The Labor Department, however, dug in on several small points. It especially opposed paying small stipends to trainees who could otherwise not afford to take training. The committee finally gave up hope of compromise with the department, and moved its version of the bill to passage in the Senate. In the meantime, the House marked up and passed its own somewhat more generous version. The conferees met in August and rapidly worked out compromises mostly along the lines of the Senate bill, but including the stronger role for local officials and greater flexibility in covering trainees' expenses that were sought by the House.
Further progress was blocked, however, by Labor Department threats that the president would veto the compromise bill. The impasse was finally broken last week when Republican conferees took their case directly to the White House and won administration endorsement of the compromise on the ground that it's not smart politics to veto a jobs bill when unemployment is pushing 10 percent.
The final product -- which deserves quick approval before Congress recesses for the election -- makes important improvements in the management and structure of the CETA training programs that it will subsume. But the real fight over training programs is still to come. The training bill simply gives the government authority -- but not money -- to run a training program. Providing money is the job of the appropriations committees, which haven't yet decided how much to allot for training programs.
The budget resolution calls for a substantial cut below the level currently being spent for training. Further cuts are likely next year as the administration grapples with the deficit. That means that, despite all the hoopla that may surround the signing of the new training bill, less help -- not more -- may be in store for the long-term unemployed.