No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.
—Quoted by Judge Gideon Tucker, 1866
The 98th Congress has now passed into history, well in advance of Thanksgiving. Left unpassed was an immense stack of bills, sufficient to add billions of dollars in spending and new forms of control over our lives. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, be glad that we did not get the eight turkeys described below, all of which were killed off by the final adjournment of the 98th Congress.
Four of these foul bills would have taken more of your hard-earned money. Take the REA bailout plan. The Rural Electrification Administration was set up in the 1930s to make subsidized loans to rural electrical cooperatives. Today, with 99 percent of the country wired, the REA is still in business, borrowing money at 12 percent from the Treasury and loaning it out at 5 percent. Naturally, it's broke. So it's been lobbying hard for Congress to forgive some $8 billion that it owes to us taxpayers! Fortunately, this robbery was halted.
Another ripoff proposal concerned $100 million in government water projects. It was a classic case of pork-barrel politics, with legislators agreeing to support each other's boondoggles in hopes of upping their odds of reelection. Bills like this slide through every session, especially in election years. But amazingly, this one died.
Remember the Kissinger Commission and its proposal to end the turmoil in Central America by buying everybody off with your money—to the tune of $8 billion? That proposal was made with a straight face, as if Third World specialists such as Peter Bauer and Alvin Rabushka had never documented the disastrous effects of government-to-government aid projects. Fortunately, this pipe dream appears to have evaporated.
And then there was Superfund expansion. As you may recall, Superfund is the government's response to the problem of toxic-waste dumps. Ignoring the polluter-pays principle, it levies a tax on petrochemical companies (which have the deepest pockets around), regardless of how responsibly or irresponsibly they behave. Proposals were floating around to increase Superfund's kitty from its present $1.6 billion to as much as $8.4 billion, both by hiking the tax rate and expanding its coverage to other industries. But this brute-force approach sank out of sight as Congress rushed to adjourn.
But it was more than just threats to our pocketbooks that hung over us. The long arm of the state was all set to reach out and touch everyone, in new and ominous ways.
In the name of civil rights, a bill had been proposed to overturn the Supreme Court's decision in the Grove City College case. That small independent school refuses to accept government funding, but the feds tried to impose numerous regulations anyway, because some of its students get government loans. The Supreme Court partially sided with the college. Whereupon infuriated egalitarians drafted a bill so all-encompassing that it would have defined virtually every business in the country as an "indirect recipient" of federal funds—the corner grocery (it accepts food stamps), the local pharmacy (it fills Medicare prescriptions), etc.—subjecting them all to the full panoply of affirmative-action rules, equal access for the handicapped, on-site inspections, and liability to private lawsuits. This one, too, died a last-minute death.
Then there was Simpson-Mazzoli, the catch-all immigration bill. Even if one thinks that government should use force to prevent people from seeking opportunities by crossing borders, one could still question the massive expansion of government power contained in this legislation. Among its more ominous provisions were its attempt to turn employers into law-enforcement officers (putting the burden on them to prove their employees are in this country legally) and its requirement for a universal identity card—a form of internal passport. Groups as disparate as the American Civil Liberties Union and the US Chamber of Commerce were part of the coalition that killed this turkey at the very last minute.
Finally, deregulation nearly suffered two major setbacks. Those out to reverse the proderegulation stance of the Interstate Commerce Commission tried to pass a bill shrinking its membership from seven to five, in order to throw out two proderegulation commissioners. And opponents of financial deregulation were determined to close the "loophole" in existing regulations that has permitted the creation of "nonbank banks" that can operate across state lines. After that effort died, the day after Congress adjourned, the Comptroller of the Currency announced that he would resume approving applications for such banks. By the time another such measure can be pushed through the next Congress, it may well be too late to break the momentum of fast-moving interstate banking.
That's eight real turkeys killed. Unfortunately, though, hundreds of others made it through unscathed. For the moment, we have several months of breathing space during which no new assaults on our liberties can be made—no new controls, and no more raids on our pocketbooks. But then the 99th Congress will take their seats.
Wouldn't it be refreshing if that Congress enacted not a single turkey? That happy result could be achieved if we gave our legislators a paid vacation—for the entire next two years. Leave the great problems of the nation unresolved—at least by government action. We'd all be pleasantly surprised at how other solutions would be developed, without further spending or new controls. And that would really be something to give thanks for.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Giving Thanks".