The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have profoundly affected how
the public views government, with polls showing a majority of
Americans regard it favorably. Two out of every three -- numbers
not seen since 1966 -- trust government to do the right thing
"nearly always or most of the time."
But is this patriotism-fueled shift a good thing or a bad
Much of the answer depends on what our elected officials in
Washington do in the wake of this new infusion of public
confidence. Unfortunately, most seem determined to do as many
things as possible, and spend as much money as possible, regardless
of whether they're doing the right thing. All that's required is
some tangential connection to "security."
Consider one of the first things Congress did, post-Sept. 11: It
bailed out the airline industry, to the tune of $15 billion. Never
mind that not one dime would prevent layoffs that were all but
assured by the poor business decisions the industry had taken all
year. Forget the fact that this pot of gold would go to
shareholders, not stewardesses. The airlines said the magic word --
"security" -- and the purse strings opened wide.
Then there's the proposal to put the baggage-screening process
at every airport in the nation under federal control. There's no
question we must do more to increase security at our airports, but
was anyone in the Senate prepared to ask whether creating a new
federal workforce of 28,000 people is the best way to make air
Apparently not. There was some private grumbling among the more
conservative members, but when it came time to vote, the proposal
Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or foolishness
of this proposal. Supporters can say it would make the airport
security more uniform, and critics can point out that airports in
Israel and Europe with far more experience in dealing with
terrorism than we do have specifically repudiated a "federalized"
approach to airport safety. But why not at least debate this before
voting for anything that promises more "security"?
As for government spending, many have caught on to the fact that
Congress is in the mood to issue free passes. And it hasn't taken
them long to line up at the trough. New York Gov. George Pataki, a
Republican, wants $54 billion in additional federal spending for
his state. Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, a Democrat, proposes $50
billion in infrastructure spending, including $23 billion for
Amtrak, a perpetual money-loser.
For a perfect example of how cynically opportunistic some
lawmakers can be, look at how the agriculture bill recently passed
by the House was renamed: the "Farm Security Act of 2001." Over the
next decade, it would add $73 billion in subsidies to the $95
billion Congress already provides. We can only hope someone in the
Senate raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about its
advisability and cost.
Before succumbing to an understandable but potentially harmful
desire to "do something," lawmakers need to ask themselves how each
proposed undertaking relates to the Constitution, which says
plainly they are to "provide for the common defense" and protect us
from internal disorder. There's nothing about assuming
responsibilities that can be handled just as well -- and usually
better -- by state and local governments or by the private
It's not a question of being "anti-government." The politicians
in Washington can do some things well, and they should. But when
they try to do everything, they risk neglecting core
responsibilities. Non-federal missions -- putting more police
officers on city streets nationwide, for example -- should be
handled by those that do them best. Sometimes this will mean state
or local government, and sometimes it will mean the private sector.
Lawmakers need to realize that a genuine interest in "security"
demands they not try to "federalize" everything.
Fortunately, we have a president who understands that government
exists not to broaden its sphere of influence but to serve the
people. "We must resist the pressure to unwisely expand
government," President Bush said recently. "We need to affirm a few
important principles -- that government should be limited, but
Sounds like a good guiding principle for our elected leaders in Washington. Let's hope they're listening.
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire