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Less Government, But Same Problems

November 13, 1994|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

Everything you've ever wanted from your government. And less. Less spending. Less regulation. Lower taxes.

If there was an affirmative agenda to come out of Tuesday's vote, it was the demand for less govern ment. It is the theme of the GOP's "Contract for America." It is the mantra of conservative talk radio. It is the mandate for the Republican Congress.

It is the measure of hypocrisy.

The demands Americans place on government are inconsistent and conflicting. We are all for less government--except when we need government to solve our problems. We are for less spending--on them, not us. We are for less regulation--of us, not them. We are for lower taxes, but not for fewer benefits for our retired parents or our college-aged children.

Smart politicians play us like a piccolo. Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia has been one of the smartest.

For years now, Gingrich has been playing the outsiders' game that hundreds of conservative talk-show hosts play every day. You get up in the morning and you look for a federal program to ridicule, a bureaucrat to rake over the coals. It's good politics and good radio--and when you really find pork, it's even good policy.

Sometimes worthwhile programs suffer: Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) is still gunning for midnight basketball, though studies confirm such programs are one of the few tools that reduce juvenile crime. And sometimes good people are sacrificed: Not every administrator is a do-nothing bureaucrat; some in the Department of Education, a frequent target, do useful work.

But the larger problem is that none of it adds up to very much. It's all well and good for newly elected senators to pledge to reduce their staffs--as one Republican did when pressed on how he meant to translate his "less government" promise into action. But it's middle-class entitlements that threaten our fiscal stability, not midnight basketball or welfare.

If you really want to spend less, you have to deal with the sacred cows in U.S. politics: Social Security and Medicare. Entitlements, interest on the debt and defense spending account for roughly 82% of the federal budget. The Social Security trust fund will be broke by 2029. That's a fact, attested to by the fund's trustees, by a bipartisan commission on entitlements and by every independent assessment. Within 20 years, entitlements and interest payments on the national debt will eat up every penny in the federal budget, according to retiring GOP Sen. John Danforth of Missouri. You can close down the Capitol, the federal prisons, the executive branch and Congress, and we'll still be out of money. Less spending, indeed.

We all know the truth, even if we don't like to admit it. That's why President Bill Clinton's desperation effort to shore up Democratic support by playing the Social Security card sounded hollow even to many of his own supporters. Now that we're all pledging allegiance to the ideal of less government, will we have the courage to embrace the commission's report, and make the hard choices? Will Gingrich?

The same goes with respect to government regulation. Nobody is for needless red tape. There are federal mandates in every area that should be reviewed. But ardent though he is in his opposition to unnecessary and expensive economic regulation, Gingrich and his conserva- tive allies sing a different tune when it comes to government regulation of people's personal lives.

The divisive social-cultural agenda of the Republican right calls for government to play a bigger role in our religious observances, our reproductive choices and our personal lives. Is this an agenda of more government, or less?

Gingrich's fondness for blaming the "counterculture" for society's problems--last week, he blamed the "counterculture" for the killing of the Smith children in South Carolina, and dismissed the President and First Lady as counterculture "McGovernicks"--may strike a chord among those who see the civil-rights and feminist movements as the source of their own frustrations, and may cement his ties to the religious right. But it is an invitation for precisely the sort of polarizing debate that frightens many moderate Americans--even if they agree with the individual positions expressed.

School prayer is popular, but will a divisive debate about it win converts to Gingrich's cause? Is this the less government we want? In the long run, a congressional repeat of the 1992 Republican convention could just as easily lead to a repeat of the 1992 general election.

Moreover, while Americans may have voted for less government on Tuesday, it does not necessarily follow that they were voting for declining schools and dangerous streets. Clinton, certainly, has failed to persuade voters that government can succeed in solving the nation's fundamental problems. But the GOP has yet to explain how these problems can be solved without government.

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