A Foreign Correspondent in Washington

Presented at the Second Annual Reason Weekend

(Page 3 of 4)

After the session, as I got my coat and prepared to leave, I overheard some of the other Washington folks muttering under their breaths, "What got into Norquist?" They acted as if they had no idea why the mayor was so upset.

A fourth sin is the value official Washington places on partisan behavior over adherence to principle. Truly nonpartisan policy groups are almost nonexistent on the Washington landscape. Of the prominent Beltway organizations, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are considered to be Republican front groups, just as the Urban Institute and Brookings do most of their work for the Democrats. AEI and Brookings have become more bipartisan (which isn't really the same as nonpartisan), but AEI is still viewed as the big-business think tank; when you think of Brookings, it's the Carter administration. How about Cato? Some folks still perceive Cato as a Libertarian Party front group, but it's now been labeled by The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio as "the hot Republican think tank."

The Beltway's fixation with partisanship makes it difficult for people there to figure out an organization like the Reason Foundation, or a publication like Reason. Bob Poole and Bill Eggers have been recommending options for federal privatization to the Vice President's National Performance Review--the "reinventing government" people--and both houses of Congress. When I tell my conservative friends this, they can't comprehend why we would give the Clinton White House the time of day. Advancing the agenda--promoting a free society--seems less important than smashing people who have a different party affiliation.

Political pundits are certainly expected to play the partisan game. Some of you may be familiar with Michael Kinsley's career before he began hosting CNN's Crossfire and recall the glee he took in tweaking persons across the political spectrum who engaed in hypocrisy or rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Now I see Michael Kinsley on television and wonder who stole his brain. The role he plays as Democratic apologist on Crossfire also affects his written work, which has become superficial--and highly partisan.

Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with intensely partisan arguments that are based on principle. Republican unity against Bill Clinton's first budget--and the Republican proposals in the House and Senate to produce lower deficits without tax increases--offered an honest, principled contrast between the two parties. Similarly, the Republican attacks on Clinton's health-care plan, and then on the Democratic alternatives, may have saved us from the actual medical emergency Reason called ClintonCare.

But the pervasive Washington notion that everything has to have a partisan spin is disturbing. Without question, there are plenty of members of each party who are nothing more than political hacks. West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd immediately comes to mind. Seeing Byrd make recent talk-show appearances, flashing a copy of the Constitution, made me want to ask: In what article of the Constitution can we find "pork-barrel spending," senator? Indeed, Byrd's recent performances show how Washington's obsession with partisanship feeds its next two sins: obtuseness and mendacity. Discussions of crucial policy issues in Washington are rarely debated on their merits but are instead reduced to shallow considerations of which party will benefit. In this atmosphere, which favors sound bites over substance, intellectual and ideological consistency are hard to find--and certainly aren't valued.

Let me use the TRB column in the March 20 issue of The New Republic as an example. Author Robert Wright's column dissects the tort-reform and property-rights provisions in the House Republicans' Contract With America. He argues that the tort reform bill, by limiting the damages an individual could collect in liability cases, favors a larger societal interest--keeping consumer prices low--over the rights of individuals to sue for massive sums of money that go far beyond anyone's notion of restitution. The tort-reform bill, he thinks, has merit. But when he discusses the property-rights bill, which would compensate land owners when federal regulations reduce the value of their property, he says the Republicans have decided to place individual rights over the best interests of the society. Why, in his view, do Republicans prefer the larger society in the case of tort reform and individuals when property rights are concerned? Here we go: "In tort reform," he says. "the individuals are more like the average McDonald's customer." In other words, people at the middle and bottom of the income scale. By contrast, "the individuals...in the case of 'property protection' [are] ranchers, real-estate developers, owners of vacation homes--in short, Republicans."

Not only is Wright wrong on two counts--Big Macs are mighty popular among Republicans in the Sun Belt, and I would imagine that the voters in Martha's Vineyard tend to lean Democratic--but he relegates a serious issue like the proper roles of lawsuits and government regulation to a mere partisan calculation, suggesting, in the process, that when you choose to work in certain occupations you should forfeit your constitutional rights. This is amateurish, bordering on insipid. But Wright isn't writing satire. And it consumes the lead column in The New Republic, considered one of the most intelligent political publications in the country.

Sen. Byrd wasn't the only person engaging in silly, dishonest rhetoric during the balanced-budget debate. During the debate in the House, a number of left-leaning legislators, along with sympathetic pundits, had argued that a provision requiring a 60-percent vote of both houses to pass any tax increases was "unconstitutional." I always thought that, once ratified, an amendment to the Constitution was, by definition, constitutional, but maybe I missed something in my high-school civics classes. Even richer was a speech on the floor of the Senate given by California's Barbara Boxer in mid-January, in which she said a balanced-budget amendment would somehow "limit democracy." Hello! Senator! I thought that's why we have a Constitution--to limit democracy, or at least to restrain untrammeled majority rule. Or did she miss that civics lesson?

Quite often, partisans say dumb things, like Boxer. Other times, they're mendacious. Take the case of New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is considered to be one of the few intellectuals on Capitol Hill. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Moynihan was asked on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour what caused communism to fail. "I think you have to go back to what the Austrian economists were saying about the impossibility of socialist planning," he said, "to the need for market prices to allocate resources."

By the time the debate over the balanced-budget amendment had reached the Senate this January, however, Moynihan's recollection of Austrian economics had become spotty. On the same day Boxer made her speech about civics, Moynihan announced his opposition to the amendment.

He didn't argue, as some did, that a balanced-budget requirement would prevent Congress from using deficit spending to stimulate the economy during a recession. Instead, Moynihan named the brilliant economists who worked with him in the Kennedy and Johnson administations, Walter Heller and Arthur Burns, who, through the sheer power of their intellects, he said, were able to engineer the high growth, low inflation, and "full employment" of the 1960s. A balanced-budget requirement, said Moynihan, would have prevented those brilliant men from fine-tuning the American economic machine. The senator appears to imply that Russian communists weren't smart enough to plan the Soviet economy but somehow Kennedy-era Keynsians could plan America's. The final Washington sin is what we might call false modesty, a belief or attitude that, with few exceptions, the federal government does little to alter the lives of people "out there," away from the Willard Hotel conferences and the lavish Georgetown dinner parties. Washington political culture treats three subjects seriously: taxes and spending, political "horse race" stories, and official corruption. The other stuff the feds do is unimportant.

Without question, some of the Washington-based stories that get a lot of air play, particularly of the horse-race variety, do not matter: boxers vs. briefs; will Leon Panetta replace Al Gore on the 1996 Democratic ticket or will Panetta get fired? How much money will Newt Gingrich get for his book? These stories deserve a resounding, "So What," but they're the ones that seem to soak up plenty of newspaper column-inches.

I'm concerned about Washington's indifference to overzealous regulation, the massive expansion of government debt, and the routine intrusions on voluntary behavior the federal government engages in all the time. The Beltway responses to these compelling stories appears to be a systemic shrug. My complaint is with Baltimore Sun columnist Jack Germond, a political reporter I greatly admire, who has said on The McLaughlin Group and elsewhere that a balanced-budget requirement in the Constitution would make no difference in anyone's life. The balanced-budget that passed the House earlier this year was certainly flawed. I would prefer to see an amendment ratified that limits as a percentage of national income the amount of money the federal government can spend. But unless federal officials stop spending profligately and accumulating debt, long before my working years end, either the Treasury will be bankrupt or the currency worthless.

My complaint is also with Herbert Stein, who was the chairman of Richard Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers, and who wrote in The Washington Post two weeks ago: "I doubt that an objective observer, if you can imagine such a thing, looking around the world would think that excessive size of government is one of America's big problems." He continues. "Even if you think that the federal government ought to be smaller, there is no reason to think that making it smaller would solve any serious problem in this country." Reading Mr. Stein may help explain why Richard Nixon was the worst president of the 20th century, but it's not reassuring for those of us interested in restoring limited government.

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