November 14, 2001

November 14, 2001 | Commentary on

The Return of Big Government?

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 thing?

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 travel safer?

Apparently not. There was some private grumbling among the more conservative members, but when it came time to vote, the proposal passed 100-0.

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 sector.

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 effective."

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.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire