There's No Going Back

March 19, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- The modest and sometimes contradictory aims of the Contract with America are explored in a new study, ''Fine Print,'' written for the Brookings Institution by two scholars not unsympathetic to the Republicans' rethinking of the federal government's responsibilities. John DiIulio of Princeton and Donald Kettl of the University of Wisconsin call the contract exhibit A for the proposition that today's anti-government, anti-Washington consensus is ''3,000 miles wide but only a few miles deep.''

Without enactment of the contract, they say, America will enter the next century with a federal government spending several trillion dollars annually. And if ''every jot and tittle'' of the contract is approved, America will still enter the next century with several trillion dollars of federal government.

''Viewed historically,'' the authors say. ''the contract represents the final consolidation of the bedrock domestic policies and programs of the New Deal, the Great Society, the post-Second World War defense establishment.''

The political culture is now national in part because the mobility of Americans attenuates localism: Between 1985 and 1990 more than 21 million Americans migrated between states; in 1990 only 61.8 percent of Americans lived in the state they were born in. When Americans drive on the Interstate Highway System, cross a bridge, board an airplane, drink water, buy food or do any of hundreds of other things, they assume that what they are using or consuming conforms to standards -- national standards.

Consider what once was considered a quintessentially local responsibility, crime. Far from removing crime from the national agenda, today's Congress of the Contract has moved to substitute conservative for liberal provisions in the most recent crime bill, but accepts the bill's essence, which is, as Messrs. DiIulio and Kettl say, ''a $20 billion widening of Washington's role in financing, setting and administering crime policy, and a clear if unintended reaffirmation of the popular belief that crime is a national problem with a national solution.''

The problem of welfare, too, illustrates the tensions, not to say contradictions, in the contract's conservatism. Barely one percent of adults receiving welfare work for their benefits. The public wants work requirements for able-bodied recipients. But it also wants ''less government.'' Trouble is, say Messrs. DiIulio and Kettl, ''As a group, long-term female AFDC recipients are second only to male and female long-term prisoners in terms of the number and severity of life problems they carry: learning disabilities, substance-abuse problems, physical abuse and neglect as children or adults, teen pregnancies and more.''

To equip such people with the skills, habits and services (such as child care) necessary for their participation in the work force requires more, not less government, the authors say. They cite Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson's plan by which Wisconsin has become the only state outside the Deep South to reduce its welfare rolls. This success can be explained ''almost entirely by a single administrative variable: the degree to which welfare clients were supervised and monitored closely by county-based case managers.''

How sharper than a serpent's tooth is the probability that any long-run savings in welfare costs must be purchased by increases in the bureaucracies that many conservatives like least, those of social workers. But so it goes with the ''revolution'' which, although it involves changes that are substantial and largely admirable, will, even if fully consummated, result in a brave new world recognizably kin to the old one.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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