Washington Watch



The more one talks with legislators and their aides, the more one is struck by the fact that many of the issues before Congress this year will be reruns of the issues which have divided liberals and conservatives for the past several sessions. The evidence of fresh thinking or new departures is minimal at best.

Congress has been wrangling about common situs picketing, postcard registration, revising the Hatch Act, surface mining regulation, food stamps, price controls and raising the minimum wage for the last several years. Once again, these issues dominate speculation about what Congress will be considering in the first few months of this year.

Most of these issues represent extensions of Federal power which have been voted by Democratic majorities in Congress and vetoed by a Republican president. With a Democrat in the White House, Hill Democrats apparently feel they can get these new Federal programs enacted without fear of veto. But, aside from whatever initiatives Carter may pursue in his first 100 days (probably not very dramatic) the issues with which Congress will amuse itself are likely to have a familiar ring for a while.


One of the most encouraging recent developments was a decision in December by an Idaho District Court to declare that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections are unconstitutional under Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure. The Court was hardnosed about it. It won't even let OSHA inspect with a warrant, since the legislation authorizing OSHA didn't mention warrants.

Several subsequent legislative developments have ensued. Both Congressmen from Idaho, Steve Symms and George Hansen, are Republicans who at least recognize the word "libertarian" and are sometimes sympathetic. They have introduced legislation to abolish OSHA. In addition Hansen has introduced a drastic reform measure (which has some chance of passage) and a resolution (H. Con. Res. 48) to forbid OSHA inspections nationwide until the court case begun in Idaho is resolved. After all, if OSHA can't inspect in Idaho, under court order, inspection anywhere else would violate equal protection.

You can get information about anti-OSHA legislation from either Symms or Hansen (Washington, DC 20515) or from Gary Jarmin at the American Conservative Union (422 First St., S.E., Washington DC 20003). Write your Congressman too, please.

The Idaho case will be appealed to the Supreme Court, of course. Who knows, it might even get a favorable hearing there.


Perhaps the most promising avenue for libertarian legislative initiatives in the coming year will revolve around the issues of deregulation and debureaucratization of the Federal government. Carter has a rhetorical commitment to some kind of "rationalization" of the government, but whether this means anything close to deregulation remains to be seen.

Support is still in place for such proposals as "sunset" legislation which would require Federal bureaus to be phased out unless a thorough periodic review justified their continued existence. Carter is a proponent of "zero-base budgeting" which would require agencies to justify their entire budget instead of assuming that only additions to last year's budget need defense. Ted Kennedy is still for drastic reform of airline regulation.

All these proposals contain pitfalls for libertarians. Carter may have used zero-base budgeting in Georgia, but the budget continued to expand. Careful, informed and persistent pressure will be needed to make any review process under "sunset" legislation really meaningful. These reforms could well serve as a cosmetic move to reduce the pressure on agencies under criticism. We must be careful not to get trapped into endorsing "reforms" which will do little good. But there is sympathy for these kinds of reforms, and we can use this opinion climate to introduce libertarian ideas and to "radicalize" existing reform proposals.


Perhaps it's jumping the gun, but I keep hearing murmurs about attempts to eliminate the "volunteer" army and reinstitute the draft, perhaps under some sort of full-fascist system whereby young men and women could choose to serve for two years with a domestic bureaucracy. Government agencies keep making studies which purport to show that the volunteer Army is more expensive than had been anticipated, and maybe the idea isn't working out so well.

We need to keep pointing out two fallacies in such arguments. First, it's just that taxpayers bear the full cost of paying personnel in the armed services rather than having cut-rate slave labor, a system which steals two productive years from a young person's life. Second, we must point out that a large portion of the personnel costs in the military are due to pension obligations. This system needs a good, hard look. There is no reason that the taxpayers should pay a full salary for life to individuals who retire from the military at age 40. Government pensions across the board are outrageously expensive. We need to focus attention on the exorbitant cost of government pensions rather than allowing people to use this cost as a vehicle for attacking the concept of a volunteer military.


The American Enterprise Institute has recently reprinted an excellent pamphlet, "Dissenting From Liberal Orthodoxy," by black economist Thomas Sowell. Copies available for 35 cents from AEI (1150-17th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036).