True Democracy: Foraging for Federal Dollars

George F. Will

December 03, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Carol Braun, Democratic senator-elect from Illinois, says she and others elected last month have a mandate for ''change'' to end ''gridlock'' and ''open up the [political] process.'' Well.

Change? Ms. Braun promised Illinois she would toil unsleepingly to increase the state's take of federal dollars. On television last Sunday, after she cited all the social ills she attributes to bad ''allocation'' of those dollars, she had this exchange:

Interviewer: ''When 50 states have two senators, all committed to maximizing the flow of federal dollars to their states, isn't that part of the problem?''

Ms. Braun: ''Oh, of course not. That's the essence of our democracy.''

She is, alas, right about what our democracy has become -- representatives and senators sent on foraging expeditions to the capital. Such pillaging has always been part of the process; now it is the essence of it. But how can Ms. Braun, so eager to plunge into business as usual, call herself ''an agent of change''?

Have we seen the last of gridlock? Gridlock is a pattern of uncompromisable impasses between the executive and legislative branches, or within Congress, on significant matters. The capacity for gridlock survived the election.

Bill Clinton promised to seek line-item veto authority. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., says ''Never!'' so it is dead. Why? Because as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Byrd is in a position to inconvenience every senator's pursuit of ''the essence of our democracy'' -- the foraging for federal dollars.

With 41 votes required to block cloture (shutting off debate), the 43 Senate Republicans may occasionally be unified and able to prevent some of the ''change'' that Democrats will push in the name of ''opening up the process.'' Many Republicans worry that when Democrats get control of both political branches of the government their first priority will be to entrench themselves -- to tilt the process even further against challenges to their primacy. Some of the things Democrats are talking about enacting quickly are ''entrenching measures.''

The ''motor voter'' bill, which President Bush vetoed, would require states to (among other things) register to vote anyone 18 or older applying for or renewing a driver's license -- and to have registration available at all offices that provide public assistance, unemployment compensation or related services.

Never mind these provisions' proven potential for fraud and voter manipulation. Clearly a federal mandate to encourage registration of recipients of public assistance is intended to register people disproportionately disposed to vote Democratic.

On television last Sunday Sen. Bob Dole, the minority leader, said he might have Republican unity sufficient to block Democratic campaign finance reforms if the reforms include public financing, spending limits and different rules for the House and Senate. Seated next to Mr. Dole, Sen. George Mitchell, the majority leader, promptly said: Campaign finance reform will come ''early,'' and ''it's not reform if you don't have spending limits,'' and the rules ''can't be the same for the House and the Senate.''

Does that mean more intra-Congress gridlock regarding campaign reforms? Good. Unless Congress has suddenly undergone a mass conversion to altruism, campaign ''reform,'' written entirely by incumbents and primarily by Democrats, will favor incumbents, and especially Democrats.

Regarding statehood for the District of Columbia (meaning two safe Democratic Senate seats to swell Senator Mitchell's majority), Mr. Mitchell says: ''I hope very much that it will become a reality this Congress.'' Oh? ''In this Congress'' means that, having failed in the 1980s to win ratification by three-quarters of the states for a constitutional amendment conferring statehood on the District, Democrats now say: We've just discovered that a constitutional amendment isn't necessary -- we can do it with a single statute.

The Democrats are proposing, in effect, to amend the Constitution without using the amendment process, effectively repealing Article I, Section 8, clause 17, which stipulates a ''seat of the government of the United States'' that is not a state. Senator Dole and his united Republicans can prevent this.

House Democrats, annoyed about the use some Republicans made this year of late-night ''special order'' speeches attacking Mr. Clinton, want to change House rules in order to curtail such speeches. Although often delivered to an empty chamber, the speeches are covered by C-SPAN, which serves 60 million households. Members of both parties now can make such speeches, but curtailment would particularly penalize Republicans. Democrats control the rules and time of floor operations and also have, through control of committees, ample opportunities for amplifying their views.

So, unsatisfied with their new domination of the executive and legislative branches, and their existing domination of the media, universities and entertainment industries, Democrats now propose suppressing speech on C-SPAN because they object to the content of Republican speeches. (''Demagogic . . . intemperate . . . irresponsible,'' said an unnamed Democratic aide, justifying the suppression to the Los Angeles Times.

It seems that much of the ''change'' that Democrats seek is designed to make it difficult to change Democratic dominance.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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