Only Government Benefits from Hatch Act Reform

GEORGE F. WILL

August 02, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- To President Clinton's criticism of Congress as dilatory and indecisive, a reasonable response is: Would that it were. Congress is decisively ''reforming'' the Hatch Act, and this is part of a pattern of Congress acting boldly concerning what it cares about most. And what is that? Read on.

The New Deal radically quickened the permeation of life by politics, expanding federal power and the potential for abuse thereof. The 1938 elections produced a Congress made more conservative by the electorate's repudiation of Roosevelt's desire to ''pack'' (by expanding) the Supreme Court. In 1939 Congress passed the Hatch Act (named for Sen. Carl Hatch, a New Mexico Democrat) to halt the coercion of federal employees into partisan politics.

Today's Senate ''reform'' of that act is substantially less awful than the House version. For example, the House would allow federal employees to solicit political contributions from the general public; the Senate would allow solicitation only within the employee's organization. The House bill does not even have the Senate bill's prohibition of partisan political activities by employees of such sensitive agencies as the CIA and the IRS office of criminal investigation.

Even so, the Senate prohibition covers just 2.8 percent (85,000) of the 3 million federal civilian and postal service workers. And both bills would serve the goal of making the federal bureaucracy into a muscular partisan lobby, thereby deepening the incestuous nature of government decision-making.

Contemporary government is another country. Government's distinctive culture produces a mentality unlike that of the society on which it battens. The federal government, imperial in scale and even grander in presumption, dominates this company town where few competing elites leaven, or lower the vanity of, the political class. The gutting of the Hatch Act will unleash the permanent government to work for the election of Congresses and presidents who favor the further fattening of that government.

The ''reform'' will advance the already far-advanced transformation of the government into the largest interest group lobbying the government. A few years ago a scholar studied 14 House and Senate committee hearings about spending issues. Of the 1,060 witnesses who testified, 47 percent were federal administrators, 10 percent were state or local government officials and 6 percent were senators or congressmen petitioning their colleagues. Today's government is a monologue, wherein government convinces itself that there should be more of itself.

That is the way Washington already is. Changing the Hatch Act (( will make matters worse. Federal employees will form political action committees to elect the Congress that pays their salaries and sets their portions of the budget. Which party will benefit most? A hint: Only one Democratic senator (Oklahoma's David Boren) voted against the change.

The Democratic Party is the party of government, in two senses. It has a capacious faith in government's goodness and competence. Also, government itself, and those dependent on government, form the party's core constituency.

This dependent class does not consist only, or even primarily, of the poor on welfare. It also includes the largest recipients of transfer payments -- the elderly -- and the beneficiaries of ''business welfare,'' which includes agricultural subsidies, protectionist measures, and subventions in the name of ''industrial policy.'' And if the Clinton administration has its way, the capstone of this architecture of dependency will be a health care system that further politicizes the one-seventh of the economy concerned with health care, and will deepen the public's sense of dependence on a ''caring'' (read: spending) government.

Congress' gutting of the Hatch Act is part of a pattern of notably decisive behavior. In January the House of Representatives quickly gave enhanced voting privileges to the five delegates -- all Democrats, of course -- representing Guam, Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The Senate has briskly passed a campaign ''reform'' that would enhance incumbents' security. It would use various coercions to compel challengers to accept spending limits, thereby surrendering their ability to compensate for incumbents' advantages by outspending those incumbents. The House has not accepted the Senate's campaign reform because enhancing the security of House incumbents requires a different sort of rigging of the rules.

Congress was not at all dilatory when it passed the ''motor voter'' bill requiring states to register 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. The latter places will register people especially dependent on government and hence disproportionately disposed to vote Democratic.

Seen as part of a pattern of power aggrandizement by the political class, and especially by Democrats, the party of government, the Hatch Act reform seems almost banal and, for that reason, particularly ominous. Still, conservatives have a not inconsiderable consolation: The Hatch Act reform serves their goal of deepening distrust of government in order to limit government.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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