'Congressional common sense': An oxymoron

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

'Congressional common sense': An oxymoron

Jun 20th, 2008 3 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow

Ernest served as a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

A new government claim reminds me of hucksters on late-night TV.

This week, we were told that America will reap $54 billion in benefits simply by spending "only" $23 billion to help the handicapped.

Such a deal. It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it? But why stop at a paltry $23 billion? Why not spend more and save more? If only we went on a bigger spree, we could wipe out the national debt!

The cost estimate comes from the Justice Department, which issued the new regulations. They might be using new math, but it sounds like the same old distortion that we've all heard so many times from government.

One of my best employees ever was a paraplegic in a wheelchair. But the department's proposal - based on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA - is about government control more than about helping the disabled. This is about government's insatiable desire to tell the private sector how to spend its money. It's just the latest example of Uncle Sam's inability to keep requirements reasonable. And understandable. And affordable.

The original ADA has already spawned hundreds of thousands of legal claims and untold billions in remodeling costs.

The further $23 billion is the estimated cost of re-doing more than 7,000,000 businesses and all state and local government facilities, in the well-intentioned name of improving access for the disabled. The changes would apply to virtually every facility open to the public, with a focus on stores, hotels, theatres, stadiums, golf courses, swimming pools, courtrooms and auditoriums, and even fitness centers.

But wait. There's more!

Even as everyone tries to adjust and sort out these sweeping new regulations, Congress plans another bill - the "ADA Restoration Act" - that will extend the reach of the 1990 Act even further and generate its own future crop of more red tape.

Basically, this bill would require that people still be regarded as "disabled" and receive special consideration even if they've made personal adjustments to overcome their limitations. A quick example is that even if you've corrected your vision problems by acquiring glasses, you still can claim disability.

As the Heritage Foundation's James Sherk noted, "Anyone with less than perfect health would be 'disabled'" under the proposed ADA Restoration Act. This legislation was approved this week by the House Judiciary Committee and is on a fast track to the White House.

Even without this further loosening of definitions, the Census Bureau already counts one in every six Americans as disabled. The new, more-liberal description (aimed at overturning unusually logical court decisions) would push that number higher. Perhaps someday we all can qualify for special treatment!

And what about that $23 billion worth of new regulations from the Justice Department? The New York Times described some of them in these words:

  • At least 25 percent of the railings at fishing piers would have to be no more than 34 inches high, so that a person in a wheelchair could fish over the railing.
  • At least half of the holes on miniature golf courses must be accessible to people using wheelchairs, and these holes must be connected by a continuous, unobstructed path.
  • A new swimming pool with a perimeter of more than 300 feet would have to provide "at least two accessible means of entry," like a gentle sloping ramp or a chair lift.
  • New playgrounds would have to provide access to slides, swings and other play equipment for children who use wheelchairs.

These are worthwhile ideas for places that attract a high percentage of disabled Americans. The problem is that now they must be applied everywhere. An Oklahoma gas station operator once told me he had to spend $20,000 to create a wheelchair ramp to access his restroom - yet in decades of doing business he'd never had a wheelchair-bound customer.

New construction would have to meet these new standards, and anyone wanting to remodel should think twice, because then the costs of compliance would hit them, too. The details are mind-numbing. Any public place that complied with the old ADA's standards of making light switches only 54 inches high would be out of compliance: the new standard is 48 inches.

The new regulations also dictate the placement of keypads, electrical outlets, fire alarm pulls, card readers, thermostats, elevator controls, pay phones and more. Retailers would have to change the height of the service counters in their stores.

The proposed changes run 215,000 words - and they're bound to expand before they become final (perhaps this fall). On top of that, the new law sailing through Congress will spawn another round of new red tape.

Some of the changes seem aimed at emotions rather than on removing barriers. For example, courtrooms would require retrofitting with ramps or chairlifts so wheelchairs could be rolled into witness stands, which are normally elevated a few inches above the floor. That's so occupants wouldn't have to testify from floor-level next to the witness stand, rather than from the stand itself.

It's not unkind to ask whether these are worth $23 billion - presuming the government for once got a number right. But cost overruns are to be expected - and we are expected to pay it.

If this were common sense, it wouldn't take 215,000 words to explain it.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
A new government claim reminds me of hucksters on late-night TV.

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