A better way to 'defund the left'

November 09, 1995|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Ernest Istook's first name could be an apt adjective. The second-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma is notably intense, particularly about a measure bearing his name. It is designed to dramatize, and somewhat alter, the fact that the most powerful interest group lobbying the federal government is the federal government.

Every year thousands of nonprofit groups, and many businesses and individuals, get billions of dollars of federal grants and contracts. Many recipients spend money on lobbying or other political activities. The fact that money is fungible makes a mockery of the longstanding legal prohibition on using federal funds for lobbying.

Mr. Istook's measure would restrict the amount of their own money that such recipients of federal funds could spend on political advocacy, however that might be construed, if they receive ''any federal funds . . . or other thing of value,'' however that might be construed.

You begin to see the problems.

Granted, Republicans are rightly infuriated when Planned Parenthood, which does nicely at the federal trough, intervenes in elections with mailings targeting right-to-life candidates.

And it is disgusting that the National Council of Senior Citizens, which gets 96 percent of its funding from the federal government, boasts about its multifaceted political assault (half a million letters and postcards flooding Washington, a toll-free telephone number connecting callers with congressional offices, a $2 million media campaign) on Republican plans for restraining the growth of Medicare and Medicaid spending.

Happy lawyers

But Mr. Istook's measure would do something conservatives should not countenance: It would make lawyers happy. It would do so by creating the sort of thing conservatives are supposed to be rectifying: It would erect a litigation-breeding regulatory regime of baroque complexity regarding political expression. By doing so it would lend legitimacy to the liberals' itch to spin more webs of restrictions on political speech in the name of ''campaign reform.''

Which is to say, Mr. Istook's cure might be as bad as the disease. But merely by proposing his measure he has served the public good by calling attention to the disease of faction in its modern form.

The Constitution's framers, especially the most important framer, James Madison, worried about ''factions,'' meaning groups pursuing, through government, interests adverse to the interests of other groups or to the public good. Madison's solution reversed the hitherto prevailing belief that free government could flourish only in a small setting. An ''extensive republic'' with a churning multiplicity of factions -- the more the merrier -- would, Madison argued, avoid the abuses of a stable and oppressive majority.

But no framer anticipated today's society in which much the largest faction is government itself. Representative Istook's amendment is a response to that fact, which has been illustrated by facts gathered by John Payne, an independent scholar who has taught at several universities.

Mr. Payne studied 14 House and Senate committee hearings, involving 1,060 witnesses, and concluded that ''the persuasion process in Washington is highly inbred.'' Six percent of the witnesses were senators or representatives, 47 percent were other federal officials and 10 percent were state and local officials. So 63 percent were government petitioning itself for redress of its grievances. Government's grievances are never that it possesses too much money or power.

Another 33 percent of the witnesses represented what purport to be private sector institutions but which are partly extensions of the government. Such groups -- the National Education Association, the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters, among others -- are partially funded by government contracts and grants.

No wonder Washington has had a self-reinforcing ''culture of spending.'' The wonder is that citizens have not demanded adoption of the Heritage Foundation's proposal that witnesses testifying before Congress be required to divulge the amount of federal funds their groups receive. Citizens have not demanded that because the problem was largely invisible until Mr. Istook's amendment highlighted one facet of it, which he calls ''welfare for lobbyists.''

Although the measure is neutral regarding the content of the political activity it would prohibit, it is a facet of conservatism's legitimate self-defense, often referred to as ''defunding the left.'' Lobbyists fueled by federal funds are rarely on the right.

Defunding the left should involve not only removing liberal lobbies like Planned Parenthood and the National Council of Senior Citizens from the public payroll, but also ending the Legal Services Corporation, public television and the arts and humanities endowments.

But the way to defund the left is by defunding it, not by emulating it, which is what Republicans in Congress will be doing if they allow their justifiable indignation about federally funded lobbying to propel them waist-deep into a swamp of regulation.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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