When Sen. William Armstrong (R- Colo.) first glimpsed the housing bill emerging from the committee on which he sits, he may have been frozen, like Lot's wife who, glancing back at Sodom, became a pillar of salt. But soon Armstrong was like Horatio at the bridge, filling 200 column inches of the Congressional Record with rhetorical roadblocks to the bill.
The bill, he says, creates seven new programs and adds billions to prospective deficits--as though $1.2 trillion over five years is not enough. It is less than two-thirds as expensive as the housing bill from the House of Representatives, but would be a reckless addition to an almost unnoticed mountain of federal commitments.
Thirteen million Americans are already receiving federal housing assistance, which concerns nearly 5.7 million housing units. Now the Senate bill calls for outlays of $11.9 billion above the president's five-year request, and that figure radically understates real expenditures.
For example, the bill would institute housing vouchers. While it calls for funds for 80,000 persons, it stipulates criteria by which many millions of persons are eligible. This is guaranteed to generate political pressure for funding sufficient to serve all eligible persons. After all, only randomness, not justice, can govern the allocation of a benefit among 80,000 of many millions of eligible persons. So the voucher system would have a potential for exponential growth comparable to that of the food- stamp program.
The bill would provide rental rehabilitation and development grants, many of which could go to non-needy persons. It would provide mortgage default assistance, again not tightly targeted to the needy. By raising subsidy levels, the bill would increase by $1.3 billion annually the cost of subsidizing the current number of units. The bill would do nothing to correct the wage practices that allowed the Chicago housing authority to pay, in one 10-month period, 216 elevator mechanics overtime--in addition to regular pay--of $3 million. One person, who must never have slept, collected $80,000 in overtime.
Since 1937, $363 billion has been committed--note that word--to federal subsidization of housing. Ninety percent of that has been obligated in the last eight years. And all but $90 billion remains to be spent. That is, the government has obligated itself to spend $273 billion over the next 40 years--and that is without a new bill enriching the menu.
And there is more to the iceberg toward which we are steaming. The $263 billion does not include the value of tax advantages often associated with housing programs, or the funding that will be needed to finance deficits in housing projects already provided.
According to the administration's budget assumptions, the government will acquire commitments for another $25.9 billion in spending for another 234,000 housing units. This, by the way, is in addition to the additional $22 billion for 212,000 units coming from the Farmers Home Administration.
With that in mind, note this: in Reagan's first year--the year of the Reagan Revolution, a k a the Reagan Terror--52 percent of total budget savings came from housing programs. But Armstrong says that housing outlays have increased under Reagan, will continue to increase, and will include 1 million additional subsidized units during Reagan's first term.
Whence did this bill come? From places ruled by Republicans. Most of the bill consists of administration proposals. (The administration can truthfully say that some of its new programs--for example, the vouchers--would relace more expensive programs.) And the Republican leaders of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee cannot saddle and bridle all Republican members.
The chairman of the housing subcommittee is John Tower (R-Tex.), who only looks even slightly liberal when standing next to the chairman of the full committee, Jake Garn (R- Utah), who is about as conservative as you would expect the person to be who is senior senator from the state that gave Reagan his highest percentage. Indeed, under Garn the committee has achieved larger proportionate reductions in its area of responsibility than any other authorizing committee of Congress. But such committee members as John Heinz (R-Pa.), Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) have large urban constituencies and hence do not vote as conservatively as they talk.
The Senate housing bill is a timely reminder of four things: how overblown is the rhetoric--not least Ronald Reagan's rhetoric--about the "Reagan Revolution"; how unlike monoliths our parties still are; how heavily the future has been mortgaged by past undertakings; and how, as with an ocean liner, there is much momentum to the ship of state. Ask not what siren song is luring the ship toward the rocks. There is no song, only inertia.