Testing Clinton's 'vision thing'

Edwin J. Feulner

January 05, 1993|By Edwin J. Feulner

AMERICANS want change, not more talk of change. This was made clear on Nov. 3 when fed-up residents of 14 states -- including California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Texas -- voted to limit the number of years their representatives can serve in Congress.

If the Clinton team's election strategy was to focus on the economy, its governing strategy should be to focus on the real dissatisfactions that have led to the term-limits movement. The new administration will be under intense pressure from or ganized interest groups -- ranging from the AFL-CIO and National Education Association (NEA) to the Jackson Democrats (Jesse, that is) and radical environmentalists -- to pay them off. With his party in control of the House and Senate, Mr. Clinton will be in a strong position to do so.

Some pay-offs, of course, are inevitable. A newly elected president accumulates political debts, and some of his creditors will call in their IOUs. A political leader, however, must learn how and when to say no. This is where Mr. Clinton's "vision thing" will be tested.

It will not be an easy test. Just look what Mr. Clinton inherits: a recovering but weakened economy, a federal budget bloated with wasteful pork, a $4 trillion national debt -- increasing at 8 percent a year -- a private sector crippled with federal mandates, a public education system that produces illiterate high-school graduates as efficiently as Wendy's stamps out bacon-cheeseburgers, a cultural establishment that mocks religion and family, an anti-poverty bureaucracy that has managed to spend $3.5 trillion during the past 25 years without improving things, and a Congress that steadfastly has balked at change for the past dozen years. What will he do?

Will he pay off the National Education Association by turning his back on meaningful education reform? Will he pay off the AFL-CIO by getting involved in an unnecessary, no-win battle over Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which authorizes state right to work laws? Will he pay off the public-sector unions by pushing for changes in the Hatch Act, which insulates federal employees from political pressure? Will he pay off construction unions and developers by pouring more money into pork-barrel construction projects? Will he hand over the reigns of the Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration to his supporters at the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen? These are real political questions only Bill Clinton can answer.

They are by no means the only, or necessarily the most important, questions. In the area of health-care reform -- another fundamentally important test of Mr. Clinton's vision and leadership -- will he try to take the easy way out by imposing more federal mandates on business? Much of big business probably would go along with such an approach. Why not, they might reason: Health-care costs already are built into their operating expenses. So what if continuing cost inflation makes them less competitive? They'll demand that Clinton and Congress protect them from foreign competitors who don't spend $3,600 per year, per employee, on health care. Is this the kind of change Mr. Clinton envisions?

Then there is the matter of controlling health-care costs. As Robert Schuettinger and Eamonn Butler pointed out in a landmark Carter-era book, "Forty Centuries of Wage & Price Controls," governments throughout history have attempted to control the costs of goods and services. They have failed each and every time. The laws of economics are clear: Government price controls, regardless of the euphemism used to describe them, in the long run produce shortages. Does Mr. Clinton foresee a future in which Health and Human Services (HHS) lawyers and accountants dole out scarce medical services according to some arbitrary bureaucratic formula?

If President Clinton follows the right course, he will be a popular success. If he follows the wrong course, by caving in to special interests and "reforming" the health-care system with measures that make the problems worse, he will be forced to retreat to the same Rose Garden where Jimmy Carter made peace with his malaise.

Edwin J. Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

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