Mohair subsidies and other tales of slipshod government spending

October 25, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- When in 1996 Congress ended wool and mohair subsidies, liberals said this proved they were serious about "reinventing" government, conservatives said it proved they were serious about shrinking government, and realists said the subsidies would be back. Some are back.

Wool subsidies grew out of World War II, when uniforms were woolen. Worried that domestic producers could not supply enough for future wars, in 1954 Congress voted subsidies. Mohair was included because well, just because.

In spite of the subsidies, wool production declined, a lot. Never mind. Wars hot and cold came and went without a wool crisis. Still, the subsidies endured, until ended with great fanfare. Last week, mohair subsidies reappeared (this time as zero-interest loans rather than direct payments) in the omnibus appropriation bill.

Together with the $250,000 for an Illinois company to research caffeinated gum, the $750,000 for grasshopper research in Alaska, the $1.1 million for manure handling and disposal in Starkville, Miss., the $100,000 for Vidalia onion research in Georgia, the.

Garbage-pail rationale

The 4,000-page bill's garbage-pail nature can be gauged from these two consecutive sentences in the conference committee's report: "The conferees believe that the responsibilities of Nurse Corps officers necessitate that they should be required to have baccalaureate degrees.

"This provision extends the 1998-1999 duck hunting season in the State of Mississippi."

Maybe there should be a law that no bill passed by Congress can have more pages than "Moby Dick." Why "Moby Dick"? For no reason. Why should reason enter into the legislative process at any point? But, then, what is the point of pretending to have lawful lawmaking?

The "Nuremberg defense," used by war criminals, is "I was only obeying orders." Usually it means, "I was only obeying orders I gave myself." Congress' "Nuremberg defense" is, "We were only disobeying orders we gave ourselves."

Congress recently imposed upon itself certain spending caps. Now Congress has made them porous by saying that whatever it designates as "emergency" spending does not count against the caps. An emergency is supposed to be a one-time, unforeseen disaster. Only a small fraction of the omnibus bill's approximately $20 billion in "emergency" spending qualifies.

In light of that, imagine this: Imagine the anti-constitutional behavior Congress will engage in if it ever "restrains" itself with a constitutional amendment "requiring" balanced budgets?

Voting against the omnibus bill on Wednesday, Sen. John McCain noted that the only copy of the bill available to Republicans on Tuesday was "scattered in pieces around the Republican cloakroom."

He asked not that Republican views prevail on everything, but that Republicans have recognizable views, and: "We ask only that we adhere to a little truth in advertising. When we call something an emergency, we should be able to say it with a straight face."

'Ominously careless'

Another of the 29 senators voting against the unamendable bill, Pat Moynihan, said there may be much good in it, but "how would anyone know?" He recalled that last year when he was floor manager of an 820-page tax bill, there was only one copy to be had for the Senate floor. The Senate, he says, has become "ominously careless with our procedures" and is "beginning to resemble a kind of bastard parliamentary system," in which loud floor debate proceeds while "the real decisions are made in a closed room by three or four people."

Meetings of conference committees are, he says, rarely convened. The rule, dating from 1884, that prohibits legislating in appropriations bills, is so shredded that Oct. 18 the House Appropriations Committee's Web site listed "significant legislative provisions in appropriations bills."

Such is Congress' creeping lawlessness, Mr. Moynihan says, "the Senate has, by unanimous consent, 'deemed' bills passed before they are received from the House of Representatives.

"In 1997, a provision giving a $50 billion tax credit to the tobacco industry was slipped into a conference report after the conference committee had completed its work. (That provision was re- pealed soon after its existence was discovered.)"

Republican Rep. Chris Cox of California remembers the first bill he voted on when he came to Congress in 1989. The 776 pages of the S&L bailout were pasted together by staff between a Friday and a Sunday vote, at which point not a single voting member had read it.

Simple beginnings

The 1990 budget bill came to the floor in a large corrugated box containing more than 1,000 unpaginated, uncollated pages "tied together," Mr. Cox said, "in twine, like newspapers headed for recycling."

Under Republicans, as under Democrats, the degradation of Congress, and of the idea of deliberative democracy, continues. This is the "bipartisanship" so praised by advanced thinkers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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