Congress Takes Aim at a Freebie, and Misses

GEORGE F. WILL

November 04, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington -- By small as much as by large actions the government defines itself. It recently did so regarding the Civilian Marksmanship Program, a little -- $2.5 million annually -- speck of government immortality.

The program began 90 years ago, after the Spanish-American War alerted the military to the fact that many recruits drawn from an increasingly urbanized society were lousy shots. So the program was created to encourage shooting clubs and marksmanship competitions.

This year Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked the House to kill the program, noting that the Army, according to the General Accounting Office, cannot identify ''any training or mobilization reliance'' for the program that gives away 40 million rounds of ammunition and other supplies annually. The program, she said, is just a subsidy of a hobby and she added sarcastically -- and unwisely, considering her colleagues' receptivity to bad ideas -- ''Why do we not have government-subsidized fishing trips?''

But Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio) defended the program, saying that most U.S. Olympic shooters in 1992 had benefitted from it. And Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.) said it is cheap compared with other youth programs. And Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) said it is an anti-crime program teaching the safe handling of firearms and getting ''kids off the streets.'' (More than half the participants in the program are over 26 years old.) He added tartly that Ms. Maloney had refused to cut even 5 percent from the National Endowment for the Arts, ''a total boondoggle.'' And Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.), announcing himself almost too angry to speak, said he votes constantly for benefits like mass transit subsidies for Ms. Maloney's New York City constituents, so she is an ingrate for opposing ''a vital, vital program'' benefiting his rural shooters. And Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) invited everyone to his district to see the benefits of federally funded Boy Scout BB gun competitions.

And so it went, silliness (the NEA, mass transit subsidies) invoked to justify reciprocal silliness, until the House voted 242-190 to preserve the program. Having acted to ensure that there will be no ammunition shortage in America, the legislators could return to rationalizing the recent tax increase with reference to the budget ''crisis,'' and they could get on with the ''reinvention of government.''

In the Senate, the story was similar when Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) proposed ending ''the absolute outrage'' of ''the freebie firearms program.'' This drew upon him enfilading fire from the likes of Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) who was eager to refute the idea that 1993 is all that unlike 1903. He said, ''I know that many of us would argue that times have changed, but . . . '' Craig proved his point -- not that the military is still running short of straight shooters, but that times have not changed in Congress, where no program is too anachronistic to command a majority.

Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, struck a judicious tone: ''Like every Montanan, I want to cut wasteful spending. But . . . '' The Senate's 67 votes to preserve the turn-of-the-century program came from liberals and conservatives because, like most of what goes on in Congress, the argument had nothing to do with any idea other than this one: Any program with a constituency should be preserved.

The government, which becomes more broadly despised as it becomes more comprehensively solicitous, no longer has even a residual sense of the great tradition of constitutional reasoning about what is and what is not a proper federal undertaking. The brief, weak threat to the Civilian Marksmanship Program was important not because it was newsworthy, but because it wasn't. The episode is worth contemplating not because it was unusual but because it exemplifies what our career political class considers a productive use of its time and our money.

And the survival of this small program is germane to two debates about large matters, term limits and a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

Ask yourself this: Is it not probable that legislators serving under term limits -- people not making every decision with an eye to making their incumbency as perpetual as every federal program is -- would be more likely, at least occasionally, to terminate a few of the more ludicrous spending programs?

And when, a few weeks hence, Congress considers the constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget and a supermajority to raise taxes, opponents in the political class will solemnly warn that the amendment would dangerously diminish Congress' ''flexibility.'' Ask yourself: What could be more inflexible than that class of political careerists who cannot terminate even a relic of the Spanish-American War?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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