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Roadblocks to reform.

MANY HAVE ATTRIBUTED gridlock to divided government, a distinguishing feature of the Reagan-Bush era. With a Democrat now in the White House and that party firmly in control of Congress, the simple conclusion would be that gridlock would end and a new era would begin. Such determination would be premature and oblivious to the complex realities of modem government. Divided government is not the problem--paralyzed government is.

There have been a few brief intervals during the 20th century when the president and Congress worked closely together and produced a program of reform--Woodrow Wilson in 1913-16, Franklin Roosevelt in 1933-37, Lyndon Johnson in 1963-65. Ronald Reagan's 1981-82 period of legislative success produced reform of a different nature--lower taxes and some reduced spending. Liberal eras, however, always have been about more government, not less. Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson--the three most important liberal presidents--undertook their reforms before anyone had conceived of the $300,000,000,000 deficit, the trillion-dollar Federal budget, and the four trillion-dollar national debt.

The budget, deficit, and national debt are more than roadblocks to a new era of reform government--they are symptoms of a deeper democratic malaise. In one of the most important books of the 1980s, The Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson explains how advanced democracies decay from within. As democratic societies mature, interest groups proliferate and demand government subsidies, tax breaks, favorable regulations, and entitlements. Such interest groups, according to Olson, "slow down a society's capacity to adopt new technologies and to reallocate resources in response to changing conditions, and thereby reduce the rate of economic growth." It is in this tangled weave of entrenched interests that Bill Clinton will encounter the major obstacle to any serious plan of reform.

Reform in the 1990s must be of far different nature than that of the New Freedom, New Deal, and Great Society. In those days, reform meant additional government benefits and more regulations. In an era of debt, deficit, and overcommitted government, new reforms must require some reductions of previous programs. It almost is an ironclad rule of the contemporary welfare state that, once enacted, a program becomes permanent, and each new one creates a new interest group dedicated to its perpetuation. For example, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was established in 1936 as an independent agency to bring power lines and cheap electricity to country folks. That job long has been fulfilled, yet the REA lives on, supported by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a well-established interest group.

Can the advocates of activist government admit that some programs have failed and can they override those constituencies that lurk behind them? Members of Congress live off Political Action Committee (PAC) money, given by interest groups determined to protect their favorite government program, subsidy, or tax break. As Jonathan Rauch put it in the National Journal, "In Washington, every program is quasi-permanent, every mistake is written into a law that some vested interest will defend furiously. The result is that as old clutter accumulates, government cannot adapt."

The experience of Reagan and George Bush should provide Clinton with evidence of the difficulties that lie ahead. The argument that a program should be eliminated because it has outlived its usefulness and costs far too much does not wash with Congress. Reagan, despite his efforts to reduce domestic spending, only cut two major programs--general revenue sharing and urban development grants. According to Rauch, Bush, in his Fiscal Year 1993 budget, proposed scrapping 246 Federal programs and 4,192 Federal projects. The number actually eliminated came to zero.

Can Clinton succeed where Reagan and Bush failed? During the 1992 election, voters were sending some strong messages about their desire to break this gridlock. The Perot constituency--a surprising 19% of the electorate--had as its core issue the Federal deficit. Should Clinton decide to take on some interest groups in order to tackle the deficit, a new and powerful constituency could be lured to his side.

In addition to the Perot factor, the 1992 election brought 110 new members to the House, the most since 1948. In a reaction against career politicians and governmental paralysis, voters in 14 states approved term limitations for House and Senate members. In all of these states, senators were limited to 12 years, while, in most, representatives were restricted to six. Consequently, 181 members of the 103rd Congress will be subject to term limits. Knowing that their stay in Washington will be brief, they may be more willing to challenge the status quo than to join it.

Career politicians in Congress have built cozy relationships with the PACs in order to guarantee lavish financing for one campaign after another. Will it make that much difference to a member of Congress elected under term limits whether he or she stays six years or four? Will we see the revitalization of the citizen politician who comes to Washington not to stay forever, but to serve his or her country and then return home. Presidents (who have served under term limits since the days of Harry Truman) have been more willing to step on a few toes than Congress has. They also always enter office with a fount of good will and high approval ratings. Clinton took office at a time when people are anxious to see evidence of effective government. This should mean a government that does fewer things well, not one that does a lot of things poorly. Clinton and the new Congress have a chance to demonstrate that. Democracy does have a way of replenishing itself. Let us hope the occasion is now.
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Title Annotation:government
Author:Bresler, Robert J.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:A problem that just won't go away.
Next Article:Bigger is not better: the virtues of decentralized local government.

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