October 30, 2002

October 30, 2002 | Commentary on

ED103002a:  When Doing Nothing is OK

"The Little Engine That Couldn't" reads the headline of a recent column by veteran Washington Post writer David Broder. He's referring to the 107th Congress and the fact that it doesn't have much to show for its two years in Washington.

Broder's got a point. No one can deny that our elected representatives are leaving a distressingly short list of accomplishments behind them. But a "do-nothing" Congress sometimes can be a good thing.

Really. As a conservative, I favor a government that's only as large as absolutely necessary-one that spends our tax dollars wisely and intrudes as little as possible into our lives. Congress usually manages to flout at least one of these precepts when it does "something," so I sometimes find myself rooting for them to do "nothing."

Of course, an unresponsive Congress isn't always a good thing. It should, for example, get serious about creating a Department of Homeland Security. (Thanks to Speaker Dennis Hastert, the House of Representatives approved legislation establishing such a department in July. Senate leaders, however, appear content to let union officials who don't like the president's plan hold up security for 275 million Americans.)

But federal lawmakers should be proud to "do nothing" about some proposals.

Take the annual spending bills Congress is supposed to pass before the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Pundits have lambasted Congress for passing only two of the required 13 spending bills before leaving town. But as my Heritage Foundation colleagues Brian Riedl and Ronald Utt point out, congressional gridlock can also be a blessing, since the unpassed measures are crammed with more pork than a hog farmer's truck heading to market.

Here are just a few of the projects now on hold, thanks to a "do-nothing" Congress:

  • A $50,000 tattoo-removal program in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.
  • A $500,000 bike trail in North Dakota.
  • A $270,000 effort to combat "goth culture" in Blue Springs, Mo.
  • A $4 million grant for Washington state's "dolphin replacement" program.
  • A $150,000 grant for a therapeutic horseback-riding program in Apple Valley, Calif.

The list goes on -- and on -- but you get the idea. Had these bills passed, you and I and every taxpayer nationwide would have been on the hook for nearly 8,000 such projects that add up to a not-so-grand total of $15 billion.

It doesn't take a financial genius to see money being wasted. Take the tattoo-removal program in California: Why should you and I pay because some guy decides when he sobers up that he doesn't want the name "Tina" inked on his bicep? The North Dakota bike trail also puzzles me. Has this state suddenly become a haven for bicycling enthusiasts -- and if so, why is this on the national agenda? And why are we giving a prosperous Kansas City suburb $270,000 to handle the black-clad, alienated teenagers in their midst? Let their parents de-goth them.

But it's not just the unconscionable waste that bothers me. It's that Congress (and I'm talking both parties here -- no one's above the fray) is serving up the pork even while a war is underway, when it's clear we need every dime to fight terrorism. They couldn't say no even during a recession, with budget deficits mounting. They cried poverty, threatened to roll back last year's tax cut, blamed corporate America -- but they wouldn't cut the fat from the budget (a budget that, appropriately enough, includes funds for the study of obesity).

Let's hope the next Congress realizes the need to cut such pork to the bone. That would be something worth doing.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), 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
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