T HE BIG NEW housing bill enacted by the Senate contains attractive innovations for a cause that desperately needs them. The Senate bill, finally passed by a resounding 96-1 vote, also reflects credit on the energetic leadership of Jack Kemp, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Only a few days ago, it looked like the Senate might content itself with traditional approaches.
Democrats who control the Senate wanted one set of programs, and the Bush administration wanted another. Not much was happening. Kemp was even warning about repetitions of the housing scandals that had so badly scarred HUD in the Reagan years.
But then he won an ally from a thoughtful and articulate source. "At a point where nobody could think about housing or care about it, Kemp came along, and he can do both," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said in a Senate speech. "That enormous energy has focused itself. He knows something has to be done. He's said it has to change. And he is really trying."
High praise for a Republican Cabinet member from a Democrat. But it foreshadowed the promising compromise that resulted from constructive negotiations between Kemp, others in the administration and Senate leaders in the housing field.
With the compromise, Democrats got $3 billion more than Bush had originally asked for, plus a program targeting low-income people for more help. Some $18.1 billion is authorized for all federal public housing programs in the next budget year, $19.5 billion for 1992 and $21 billion for the following year. By comparison, $14.5 billion is being spent this year.
In return, Kemp and the administration got tightened rules for first-time buyers of homes using Federal Housing Administration mortgages, plus $1.9 billion in authorizations for a new effort that will encourage public housing tenants to buy and manage their own apartments. A Kemp-backed program of vouchers, which those eligible for public housing would use to rent private housing, also won support.
All this reflects well on Kemp. But so have some other accomplishments in his initial 17 months in the Cabinet.
Kemp took over a department dead on its feet. HUD was weighted down not only by bureaucratic inertia and uninspired thinking but also by gross mismanagement, political favoritism and influence peddling.
One of Kemp's earliest sound judgments was to confront the department's failings honestly -- rather than gloss over them -- and to try to clean up the mess. He shaped recommendations that Congress approved last year. While all this was going on, he also indicated his own and the Bush administration's concern for the homeless and for fresh thinking in the housing field.
Aside from Secretary of State James Baker, Kemp has emerged as the highest-profile member of the Bush Cabinet. His constructive presence includes efforts to keep close contact with minorities, not always a Republican strength.
None of this means that the former House member from Hamburg has achieved full success in a policy field littered with shattered initiatives and embittered results.
But he does care, as Moynihan said, and he is trying. He is pressing ahead with honesty, pluck, energy and imagination.
Nor will Kemp have long to wait long for his next battle. The House bill on housing, and then the task of settling on a final Senate-House compromise, loom ahead.