Commentary: Tin-eared government

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Dec. 25, 2001 at 11:04 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- For most of the last 25 years, the central debate in American politics has been over the size and scope of the federal government.

Under Jimmy Carter, Americans grew to believe government was moribund, ineffective and a nuisance.

Ronald Reagan rode a wave of anti-government sentiment into office. Then, paradoxically, he showed how limited government could be effective government. He left office with a very high approval rating and with Americans feeling much better about government then they had when he entered the White House.

The twelve-year Bush/Clinton period is almost equally paradoxical.

George Bush the elder led America to victory in war and tried to be an activist leader at home, increasing the size of the federal register by many pounds. In the process, he helped wreck the economy and reignited American suspicions about government that most clearly manifested themselves in the term limits movement and in the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, did very little after his effort to nationalize one-seventh of the economy failed. He proposed few if any significant initiatives and yet had extremely high job approval ratings, even while his personal numbers dropped through the floor.

While he ran for office as a centrist new Democrat, his proposal to reduce urban crime by stepping up federally-funded midnight basketball games told the American people a very different story, according to survey data compiled at the time, and government confidence plummeted.

In the period in which House Republicans were, by popular perception at least, actually running the country, government fared little better, especially after a budget impasse resulted in a shutdown that was a nightmare for the GOP.

But with the economy humming along in the late 1990s, people felt pretty good about Washington. And, as economist Stephen Moore and others demonstrate, a spending binge in state capitals across America helped reinforce the era of good feeling.

The economy cooled rapidly over the last two years and is not performing as it did for much of the 80s and most of the 90s. The ongoing military action in Afghanistan has, however, done much to maintain the level of public confidence in the government while similarly drawing attention away from the nation's economic woes.

This is often the case in wartime. Western democratic tradition establishes that one of the primary functions of government is to kill people and break things. This is not typically exercised indiscriminately; however, when the government does decide to go after someone, it usually gets what it set out after.

Which ties back to confidence in government.

If the American people see government perform an elemental function well, like make war, then they tend to be more confident in the level of competence overall. Public doubt about government effectiveness drops off the radar screen until something causes it to be brought back into the field of public vision.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Kensington, Md., Christmas parade, it is a decision that is so bizarre as to cause most people to scratch their heads in amazement, wondering if the elected officials who made it didn't have something better to do that day.

Kensington is a small community in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. On Oct. 29, all four members of the city council voted to change the theme of the community Christmas tree lighting ceremony to a patriotic salute in honor of the victims of the Sept. 11 terror attack.

This also meant that the program would be more secular than in years past -- which meant that Santa Claus had to go.

The council denies this was the intent of their decision, that there was no "Santa ban."

It is also true that several residents of the community who do not celebrate Christmas have been urging the council to evict Santa from Kensington's secular ceremony, never mind that Santa is a secular figure himself.

In the end, the community rose up against the ridiculousness of it all, the parade was deluged with Santas of all shapes and sizes and the council was left with egg on its face.

Sometimes, the overreach is not so innocent yet equally outrageous.

About the same time that Santa's place in the Kensington tree lighting was being debated, the Montgomery County (Md.) Council was debating new indoor air quality standards that would result in stiff fines for smokers if their neighbors are offended by their habit.

Specifically, the new standards put tobacco smoke into the same category as asbestos and other allegedly harmful airborne pollutants, making it a punishable offense if smoke from a cigar one enjoyed in the privacy of one's own home drifted in the air to the home of a neighbor.

As Montgomery council member Isiah Leggett, D-At Large, said, "This does not say that you cannot smoke in your house ... What it does say is that your smoke cannot cross property lines."

The proposal for which Leggett and five of his colleagues voted did not specify the level at which so-called second-hand smoke would be hazardous, laying out the possibility that aromas alone would be grounds for a complaint to county environmental authorities.

And, as smoke is among the most ephemeral of things, the council in effect handed a heavy club to quibbling neighbors, allowing over-the-fence concerns to be elevated well beyond the appropriate level.

Consider the possibilities if such a law were placed on the books. Mrs. Jones next door cooks with too many onions and stinks up the apartment hallway? Call the enviro-cops and tell them her cigarette smoke is coming through your vent. Little Johnny upstairs plays his music too loud? Call the enviro-cops and tell them the stench from Johnny, Sr.'s cigar smoke spoils the condo courtyard. Don't like where Mr. Smith parks his car in relation to your house? Call the enviro-cops and tell them the smoke from his barbeque is invading your backyard.

Such outcomes are possible in a society where people call 911 to get a ride to the doctor. Given the chance, many people would love to manipulate the heavy hand of government to settle a personal score.

After first agreeing to support the ordinance, County Executive Doug Duncan, a Democrat, reversed his position after citizens of the county began to express their outrage.

The proposed ordinance violates a sacred American political principle -- that what a person does in the privacy of their own home is their own business, not the government's. Obviously, this is not an absolute -- a person building an atomic weapon in their attic is not believed to have the right to do so in secret -- but it is an important cultural norm, something to which the council demonstrated a tin ear.

In both the Kensington and Montgomery County cases, it was the outrage of the community that eventually carried the day against the bad decisions of elected officials. Public consent and popular dissent is still the most effective political weapon in America. It never really subsides. It lays in wait for dumb decisions and then pounces like an angry tiger.

And, unbelievably, elected officials all over America keep providing targets for them.

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