Washington Watch: Capital Thinking


Washington is a city of assumptions, the most pervasive of which is that government knows best. It is considered axiomatic that higher taxes and spending, new programs, and more regulations are necessary to benevolently shape and direct American life.

This assumption clearly has underlaid previous administrations. For instance, three years ago, Joan Mondale was interviewed about the arts and asked: "How can you shape a policy when you don't spend any money?" Indeed, how can you? Unfortunately, she apparently saw no need to ask, "Why should you?"

Similarly, when Carter's assistant agriculture secretary, Carol Foreman, left office, she gave herself "good marks" for making more needy people eligible and expanding the Women, Infants and Children nutritional program. Her goal was not to get people off of federal largesse; it was to get them on!

The Reagan administration and Republican Senate do offer the hope of change; for 17 years President Reagan has consistently challenged the intrusiveness of government. Yet in his inaugural address, Reagan did emphasize that his goal was not to do away with government but to "make it work"—to make it "work with us…stand by our side…provide opportunity." Unfortunately, Reagan, though having a vision of a substantially smaller government than did previous presidents, apparently has succumbed to the operating assumption that government should provide opportunity, work with us, and stand by us.

Some of Reagan's cabinet nominees more clearly accept the basic assumptions of past years. For example, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick has complained that Republicans have "consistently emphasized private concerns such as profit and taxes…[and] have not communicated a persuasive conception of the public good." Kirkpatrick doesn't explain why private concerns are necessarily separate and distinct from the "public good." She merely assumes it.

Similarly, Energy Secretary James B. Edwards took up his post with the assurance that he was "signing on for the duration" and did not "intend to preside over the [rumored] dismantling of the Department of Energy." The reason? "There has to be some sort of focus for energy policy." But why must the focus be in government? The government's energy policy has created our energy crisis. Indeed, Edwards more recently declared that "you should have some reason other than the free market" for lifting natural gas price controls. But why? Again, we have the blind assumption, not reasoning.

Then there's Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge. He recently accepted that Japanese auto imports are a "problem" to be "solved" by the government. And Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis says that solution may be import limitations. In a view shared by our ambassador to Japan and much of the Congress, the availability of low-cost, quality cars for Americans is—apparently by definition—a problem requiring governmental action.

Nor has the Republican victory changed the underlying assumptions held by the Washington political establishment. For example, there are apparently few people other than OMB Director David Stockman who believe that even $50 billion can be cut from the 1982 Carter budget of $700 billion. The Washington Post headlined one article: "It's Tough to Trim—Whether from a Line Item or a Big Project."

This attitude is personified by Senator Kennedy's rejoinder to the proposed cuts: "I am not prepared to see the social progress of a generation swept aside." The ubiquitous, and flawed, assumption is that only government can guarantee "social progress." Proposing merely to trim the duplication in welfare programs has led to a spate of articles on the "losers" in the budget fight—welfare families, poor students, the unemployed, and on and on. And this when the Reagan administration placed more than $200 billion in social spending beyond the budget ax.

Similarly, cutting synfuels subsidies is denounced as a retreat from energy independence. Reducing subsidies for mass transit automatically means less transportation. Reducing Farmers Home Administration loans will destroy rural America, and terminating Urban Development Action Grants will terminate urban life. And so on.

Unfortunately, even most Republicans play these hypocritical games. But if they are serious about changing the fundamental course of government, they will have to change the commonly accepted definition of politically feasible. Merely accepting the commonly accepted will result in the commonly accepted result: runaway federal spending, interest rates, inflation, and unemployment.

Others infused by this assumption include the Select Commission on Immigration, headed by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, which has spent thousands of dollars studying the "problem" of illegal immigration. And guess what? Where there's a problem, government must solve it. The commission's solution: worker ID cards, and civil and criminal penalties against employers who hire illegal aliens.

Similarly, the Drug Enforcement Agency, which exists to "solve" the "problem" of drugs, has proposed a new draconian measure to cut down the flow of drugs—stripping drug traffickers of their assets. Apparently, any little repression is justified if one assumes that drugs must be stopped at all costs.

Finally, black civil rights leaders have sought assurances from the Reagan administration that there will be "no backward steps" in fair housing, job opportunities, and voting rights. These demands reflect their common assumption that blacks can prosper only through government largesse. Again, the assumption, with no discussion.

Ronald Reagan represents a fundamental shift in philosophy for Washington, but long-held underlying assumptions will take a long time to die. For once life has been breathed into opposite assumptions—for example, that the end of federal money to, and programs for, education does not mean the end of education—the justification for Washington's money, departments, and bureaucrats will die. And who in Washington would want that to happen?

If Ronald Reagan is able to change the Washington assumption, he will assure himself a place in America's history books. And he will deserve it.

Robert James Lee is a Washington attorney and a free-lance writer.