WASHINGTON -- The impression voters have these days of a donothing, gridlocked Congress is being fueled by the painful and often bitterly partisan struggle to craft a health care reform bill.
But look elsewhere around the Capitol and you will find other committees quietly working away, gaining little media attention, but passing substantial pieces of legislation.
Nowhere is Congress' productiveness more evident than in the House and Senate banking committees, where the lawmakers who handle housing issues have spent the last several weeks putting together legislation to reauthorize all federal housing programs. Those include Section 8 rental assistance, HOME, and the Community Development Block Grant program.
Compared with the panels that have jurisdiction over health care, the banking committees are moving with relative ease on the reauthorization. The House Banking Committee met for two days before completing a bill on June 17, while the Senate Banking Committee took all of 45 minutes to pass its measure on June 22.
Both bills are well on their way to approval by their respective chambers later this month, which will give conferees plenty of time to work out a final bill before the housing programs expire on Sept. 30.
A number of provisions in the housing legislation are important for the municipal market. Both bills, for example, would extend a pilot program known as risk sharing, which is designed to test the idea of letting state and local housing agencies help the Housing and Urban Development Department's Federal Housing Administration insure multifamily loans.
The House panel would give the HOME program up to $1.775 billion in fiscal 1995 and 1996, while the Senate committee's bill would permit funding of up to $2 billion in 1995 and $2.3 billion in 1996.
In comparing the banking committees with the panels that are hammering out a health care bill, the most striking difference is the relative lack of partisanship among housing lawmakers. The two banking committee chairmen, Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Tex., and Sen. Donald Riegle, D-Mich., repeatedly have praised the cooperation they have received from Republican legislators.
Even more unusual has been the penchant for Democratic lawmakers to side with the Republicans against Clinton Administration proposals to create a slew of new housing programs and pay for them by cutting funding for existing programs.
One of the most prominent examples involves the HOME program, which received $1.275 billion from Congress in fiscal 1994, but which the Clinton Administration proposed be given only $1 billion in fiscal 1995.
HUD officials were repeatedly lambasted by housing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, to the point where they have staged a partial retreat, saying they now believe HOME should receive $1.1 billion next year.
What's going on here? Shouldn't a huge housing reauthorization bill be creating a few more fireworks? Not necessarily.
For one thing, Capitol Hill observers point out that the committees are not inventing the wheel this time around in housing. The 1994 bill mainly continues policies shaped in 1990 and 1992, years when partisan wars did erupt over how best to provide affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people.
With the current bill, however, "this is a fairly straightforward reauthorization," said one lobbyist. "It's almost a housekeeping bill."
But that still doesn't explain why Democratic lawmakers have been unwilling to carry the Clinton Administration's water on new programs. If anything, those legislators have been even more vehement than the Republicans in insisting that HOME, block grants, and other existing programs not be cut to make room for untried new initiatives.
Pride of authorship may be a large part of the answer. Committee leaders who are, for example, fighting to restore HOME moneys, played an instrumental role in creating the program four years ago.
Another clue may lie with the lobbyists. HOME, block grants, and many other housing programs have a strong, united constituency among state and local governments and housing agencies. That contrasts with the health care arena, where all sorts of diverse sectors -- doctors, insurance companies, consumers, and so on -- all seem to want something different.
But put aside all the logical explanations and it is still refreshing if not a bit shocking to watch two committees at work that move efficiently and aren't crippled by partisanship. All those health care lawmakers could take a lesson from their colleagues in housing.