Career Spenders

GEORGE F. WILL

October 07, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

DENVER — What ails American government? Patricia Schroeder, for one thing. And a few thousand other career legislators.

The congresswoman from Denver is intelligent, witty, well-meaning and warm-hearted. Alas, she also is something we simply no longer can afford. She is too costly in money and institutional distortion.

Proof that she proves the wisdom of term limits for legislators is her legislative embrace of an admirable idea. The idea is midnight basketball leagues, which have been praised by this columnist.

Such leagues in Chicago and other cities take young men off the streets and into gyms for basketball and counseling during hours when they might otherwise be getting into trouble. Now, at Ms. Schroeder's behest, the House Judiciary Committee has voted to include almost $3 million (a pittance, but such things grow) in the crime bill to subsidize midnight basketball leagues.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (et tu, Jack Kemp?) already had its nose in that tent, with some subsidies. Now Ms. Schroeder speaks the four-letter word Washington adores: ''More.'' She favors federal funding for new leagues in suburban and rural areas experiencing youth problems.

The mentality of Washington's entrenched incumbents is one of the reasons they are entrenched: Every good idea out there in America must become a slice of federal pork. Let us stipulate that Ms. Schroeder is public-spirited. She also is, strictly speaking, deranged (Oxford English Dictionary: ''thrown into confusion'') as a result of living too long in Washington.

She is just doing what people do here and in other legislatures. They get up in the morning, shower, shave or apply their makeup, commute to work, pour a cup of coffee and start spending other people's money. Invariably, they can convince themselves they are not ''really'' spending anything. ''It [the antecedent can be almost any program] will pay for itself.'' As in: ''It is cheaper to buy basketballs than prison cells.''

Edward Crane of the Cato Institute rightly argues that in a town where the tone of life is set by a ruling class of career legislators, the prevailing mentality makes people -- strictly speaking -- weird (OED: ''out of the ordinary, strange, odd, fantastic''). Most of the people legislators associate with are involved in regulating other people's lives and spending other people's money.

After prolonged immersion in Washington's culture of ruling, there is not a dime's worth of difference between (as the Wall Street Journal puts it) Democans and Republicrats. That is why the House recently passed appropriations bills funding a study of the handling of manure ($37,000), a Stuttgart, Ark., fish farm ($542,000), a recycling facility in Susquehanna, Pa. ($1 million), the Institute of Peace ($8.3 million), Houston's ''Better-Bus'' system ($15 million), a study of Afognak Island, Ark. ($250,000) and thousands of other projects that could conceivably be defensible if the federal government had enough revenues, which it does not, and if it were not supposed to acknowledge some limits to its reach.

Nine decades before James Naismith hung a fruit basket in the YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts, President Jefferson saw today's folly coming. He said to the Congress: If you guys get into funding even things as basic as roads and canals -- if you say the government's ''implied powers'' (as distinct from those explicitly enumerated by the Constitution) are infinitely elastic -- well, sooner or later you will even be subsidizing games hither and yon.

OK, he didn't say that in so many words, but that was his gist, and a glance at the federal budget proves he was right.

We have come a long way since Jefferson fled the Federal City for the sanity of Monticello and there is no going back to Jeffersonianism. However, it is reasonable to suppose that term limits compelling the rotation of offices would have two salutary consequences.

If people served in legislatures only briefly, going to them from other careers, to which they would soon return, they would have less incentive to shovel out pork. And if they were not too distant, for too long, from normal citizens and normal life in normal communities, they might retain the ability to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate functions for the federal government.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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