Curb Your Dog!

What the rest of us want from Washington


You're jogging down your neighborhood street, as your large Labrador retriever bounds along beside you, occasionally heading into a front yard to sniff out things of interest to dogs, occasionally leaving an unwelcome calling card for the neighbors to clean up. You round a corner and there, playing happily in the grass, is a little girl, maybe 4 years old, whose mother is watching her from a lawn chair.

Intrigued by the little girl, the dog heads over to her. He is as big as she is, and much stronger. As he sticks his slobbery jowls in her face, she flinches, stands up, backs off, falls down, cries. The dog continues toward her, relentless in his curiosity.

If the mother is like most mothers, and you are like most dog owners, both of you sympathize with the dog. You try to disabuse the little girl of her fear. "It's OK," you say. "He won't hurt you. He loves children."

And children love dogs. Everyone knows that—and so should she.

"Nice doggie," says the mother, rising from her chair. "Don't be afraid. He won't hurt you." She pushes her daughter toward the animal. The little girl continues to squirm and cry, trying to escape the advancing giant. "I don't know what's wrong with her," the mother says to you. "She just doesn't like dogs."

No, this isn't an autobiographical story. It's an attempt to explain the attitude people in official Washington have toward Americans who flinch in fear at the advances of the allegedly benevolent state. Where the rest of us see a giant creature with sharp teeth and claws, they see only a friendly pet.

At one level, you can't exactly blame them. They live every day with the federal government and its employees. Just about everyone they meet, socialize with, work with, or marry is either a government employee, a lobbyist, or a journalist. They understand "the system," and know its operators. They can't fear what they know so well.

For the rest of us, even those of us who know more than a few government officials, the government—state and local as well as federal—is mainly something to be avoided between occasional trips to the post office. For us, the voice saying, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you," is not our old friend Paul calling about a job opening in the interstices of the Commerce Department. It's the local building inspector snooping around our bathroom remodeling job, delaying it by a month. It's the OSHA official informing us that we'll be spending half a day sitting in a lecture on how to avoid stress. It's the INS demanding to see our work papers. It's the EPA decreeing that we start car pooling. Or it's the IRS informing us that we've been selected for an audit.

When Washingtonians, of whatever political persuasion, pretend to be "of the people," they tend to come off as phonies—and for good reason. They can put on flannel shirts and talk in the accents of Memphis or Missouri, but they still look at the dog from the owner's perspective, not the little girl's. There are exceptions, of course. Rep. Tom DeLay's experience running an extermination business probably did instill a certain permanent fear of the EPA. But on the whole, Washingtonians just can't see the federal government (and, by extension, government in general) as something scary. And they have little sympathy for anyone who can.

That's why you can go around Washington talking about the importance of welfare reform or dynamic budgeting, but you should never mention the word tyranny. You can say government actions are inefficient, costly, or even unfair, but you can't suggest they're dangerous. That is gauche. It makes people roll their eyes. This isn't just a matter of preserving the importance of fine distinctions—an audit is not, in fact, the same as a midnight arrest by the secret police. It's that nobody in Washington can really believe that George down the block or Susan down the hall is a terrifying individual.

But they can read the polls. So lately, Republicans in Congress have suggested that leash laws and pooper scooper measures might be a good idea—that if we can't get rid of the regulatory state, we might at least keep it under control. Regulators should have to prove that new rules will do more good than harm ("cost-benefit analysis") and they should have to pay the difference if they seriously degrade the use and value of someone's property ("takings" compensation). In other words: Curb your dog.

Respectable Washington, dog-loving Washington, finds such measures extreme, or corrupt. Only a ridiculous child or someone paid by the leash lobby could support such notions, they reason. After all, the nice doggie is our friend.

It's hardly a surprise that the last thing regulators want is restrictions on their freedom to roam or, worse yet, an obligation to clean up their own messes. "The agencies can't possibly go through all of these steps of review without years of delay. It's a greater threat than I've ever seen before in my political life," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) of cost-benefit requirements.

When Newt Gingrich accurately calls David Kessler "a thug and a bully" for using the FDA to terrorize everyone from mom-and-pop vitamin distributors to multinational pharmaceutical companies, Waxman worries that Gingrich is trying to "intimidate" the agency. "I was stunned by the supercharged words he used against Kessler," Waxman told National Journal. "It seems like he's trying to bully the agency." Waxman should know; as a committee chairman in the old Congress, he took bullying to a high art.

Republicans are, however, also dog lovers. While they demand leashes and pooper scooping for the Labs and Irish setters, they're equally insistent that we let the Dobermans and pit bulls run free—for our own protection, of course. Hence their disdain for the Fourth Amendment, that antiquated statute that conceived of every government as a potential tyranny. Hence their demand for ever-longer sentences for people who use or sell drugs. They assume, probably correctly, that no one they know will ever be affected by such laws—and not because no one they know will ever break them.

Indeed, it's a barometer of official Washington's attitudes that you can count on your thumbs the articles on the drug war published in The New Republic over the past half-dozen years—though if Vanity Fair is to be believed, the magazine's literary editor had an early '90s coke habit that would have gotten a less privileged man a lengthy prison term. Worrying about how non-insiders fare in the legal system is, however, much too crass for Georgetown partygoers. It suggests that non-insiders matter.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a man more quoted than read in Washington, provides some insight on the gulf that has developed between official Washington and the America it rules. He suggested that when citizens see one another as civic equals, they identify with each other. As a result, they develop sympathies that prevent the sorts of tortures aristocrats used to inflict on uppity peasants.

But such sympathies are missing in a capital insulated from its own depredations. Who in official Washington fears EPA enforcers or INS raids? Who in official Washington struggles with OSHA requirements or trembles at the threat of a liability lawsuit? Who in official Washington need ever fear a decades-long prison sentence for drug conspiracy? Who in official Washington has any chance of getting lost in a system beyond his comprehension, a system populated by strangers with strange ways?

And why, given that no one in official Washington faces such threats, do we expect them to call off the dogs?