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Stealth Lawmaking

Making end runs around the American people’s conservative sensibilities has become a favorite pastime-and something of a necessity-for the Washington …

Making end runs around the American people’s conservative sensibilities has become a favorite pastime-and something of a necessity-for the Washington establishment.

Following Bill Clinton’s example, lawmakers regularly cloak one paternalistic, big-government scheme after another in conservative rhetoric to increase chances of passage. But over the past year, I have seen increasing evidence that Congress and the administration are taking subterfuge one step further, to what I call “stealth lawmaking.”

Take, for example, the Clinton healthcare reform plans that emerged from Congress last summer. The Mitchell and Gephardt plans conveniently presented “alternatives” that the president was gracious enough to endorse while disassociating himself from his own unpopular health-care monstrosity.

Ever wonder why the president-who fights tooth and nail to the bloody end over pork-laden stimulus packages, bloated budgets, and crime bills-so willingly abandoned his carefully crafted and painstakingly promoted health-care plan?

That’s easy: Because the Gephardt (House) and Mitchell (Senate) plans were simply slightly modified reincarnations of Clinton‘s liberal, big-government proposal. Had either bill passed in its original form, the president and his allies would have skated past the American people and delivered the dream that has been burning in every liberal heart for the past two decades: government health care.

American families and businesses already had expressed their disapproval of employer mandates, a government-chosen standardized benefits package, price and spending controls, and the huge new bureaucracy the Clinton plan would have created. But liberal lawmakers just wouldn’t bow to the public’s instinctive common sense.

Instead, the Gephardt bill’s employer mandate would have gone into effect immediately; Mitchell’s would have taken effect when his plan failed to attain an unattainable target level of health-care coverage. Both bills required standard benefits packages: Gephardt’s overtly, Mitchell’s covertly through a commission. Both would have established mechanisms to limit spending on health care or to control prices, each of which would have led to government rationing. And both would have created huge new bureaucracies and placed an extra burden of unfunded mandates on state governments.

Such sneaky maneuvers aren’t confined to the health-care bill. One of the reasons the crime bill was so difficult to pass was because its proponents-including the president-were embarrassed by the real truth regarding the 100,000 new policemen the bill was supposed to put on America‘s streets. The funding for such a scheme simply wasn’t in the bill.

In reality, the “community policing” grant program, the most publicized portion of the crime bill, provided only $8.8 billion in “seed money” to local Governments to hire 100,000 new officers, not to fully fund those positions. The rest of the cost-some $28 billion over six years-will be picked up by state and local governments.

But this didn’t stop the president and his allies from repeatedly asserting that the crime bill “would put 100,000 officers on the streets.” After it was exposed by Scott Hodge, a budget analyst at The Heritage Foundation, the White House issued a statement defending its position, but with a minor word change: This time the bill would “help” put 100,000 cops on America’s streets.

In fact, the crime bill provided only enough money for about 20,000 new police officers, one for every police department in America. If the funds were spread out to pay for 100,000 officers, they would receive just $14,750 a year-roughly the poverty level for a family of four.

Meanwhile, when they had our ears tuned to their tough talk on crime, liberals tried their best to slip through more than $8 billion-worth of vaguely worded social programs under the euphemistic heading, “crime prevention.”

These programs were aimed at “relieving conditions that encourage crime” and providing “meaningful and lasting alternatives to involvement in crime” (actual wording from the bill), such as midnight basketball and arts and crafts. They would have duplicated at least 50 similar federal programs that don’t do anything to prevent crime either. After a fierce battle, the $8 billion-plus was cut to “just” $5.5 billion.

Then there was the welfare-reform bill the Clinton administration finally presented to Congress after two years of raising expectations about “ending welfare as we know it.” What the White House actually unveiled was a public-relations facade intended to forestall criticism and change.

Despite conservative talk of “workfare” and “two years and you’re out,” the welfare proposal the president placed before Congress contained no time limits and would place only a fraction of welfare recipients indefinitely in jobs-in government make-work positions, that is. Among those listed as exempt from the work requirement in the president’s bill: all parents born before 1972. This takes in nearly 80 percent of current recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the largest welfare program. The president’s bill even phases out work requirements that already exist for those most able to work-employable males-and aims modest new work programs at those least able to enter the work force: single mothers with young children.

How much will the new welfare program cost? We don’t know exactly. To the president’s budget, from fiscal 1994 to fiscal 1998, would increase government spending from $1.45 trillion to $1.75 trillion.

The administration’s half-trillion-dollar discrepancy was due to the way Congress calculates a budget cut. Rather than using this year’s actual spending level as a base, Congress uses an imaginary number called a “baseline.” Baseline figures are produced by government economists who guesstimate how much money the federal government will need to do everything it did last year, factoring in inflation, population growth, and other variables. The number they wind up with is usually so high that politicians can safely “cut” from it without touching their favorite entitlements and pork-barrel schemes.

This number, and not last year’s spending level, is what the White House and Congress base their “spending cuts” on. Thus, the president and Congress can sneak a $300 billion spending increase past the American people by calling it a $200 billion spending cut. This can’t go on forever, especially as the political term-limits movement expands and begins to retire the perpetrators of the shenanigans I mentioned. Perhaps then, politics may start taking a backseat to true Congressional leadership.


Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based public policy research institution. He also serves on the boards of several other foundations and research institutes. Dr. Feulner is the author of “Conservatives Stalk the House.”

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