Acute Government Activism

While President Clinton has taken pains to mimic the rhetorical successes of Ronald Reagan and John E Kennedy, he has actually modeled his presidency in the style of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like FDR, Mr. Clinton campaigned on the promise of reinvigorating the private sector and slowing the perennial expansion of government authority. Like FDR, Mr. Clinton summarily dismissed this agenda in favor of government activism on an unprecedented scale. FDR brought America the New Deal;” Mr Clinton wishes to bestow upon us the “New Covenant.” The names may differ, but the recipe is the same: The government will do more, free individuals will do less.

Compared to FDR’s first 100 days, Mr. Clinton’s legislative accomplishments are hardly impressive. The family leave bill is the only major piece of legislation that Mr. Clinton has signed into law.

Yet legislative accomplishments may not be the proper standard by which to judge the current president. Unlike any president since FDR, Mr. Clinton has manipulated symbols and popular concern over issues such as the deficit to forcefully advocate an increase in government authority. Since this has been done in a subversive manner. — Mr. Clinton has created a whole new vocabulary for fiscal policy — it sets a disquieting tone for the next four years.

This is most evident in Mr. Clinton’s agenda to create American jobs. Mr. Clinton has been able to defend increased spending on everything from Head Start to highway bridges as “investment” necessary to get job creation back on track. Bigger government, for Mr. Clinton, is the answer to anemic job creation in the private sector. When presented with the prospect of further job losses in the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Clinton pledged there would be 

no net loss of jobs for the timber community. In true FDR fashion, he champions public works “dig-a-hole, fill-a-hole” programs.

On the deficit, Mr. Clinton has demagogued his way into convincing the major media and a significant portion of the American public that the only way to pay for the deficit (and his social programs) is to raise taxes. Some of Mr. Clinton’s proposals, such as increasing the fees for mining patents on public lands, would likely prove net revenue losers for the federal government, and certainly for states.

Mr. Clinton has ignored the fact that the deficit is out of control because spending is out of control. Spending is out of control because neither Congress nor the executive has been willing to control it. This is as true today as it was during the past four years. Yet, rather than exercising restraint over government spending, Mr. Clinton seems to believe that government will shrink by gaining a greater proportion of America’s paychecks.

This leads to the heart of Mr. Clinton’s fiscally disastrous plan — a tax on energy, the lifeblood of any industrial economy. Compromises will be made— subsidies and exemptions to buy off politically powerful groups that threaten the tax’s passage— but the end result will be the same. Enacting a broad-based energy tax would symbolize America’s adoption of the anti-mobility, anti-consumer energy policies that dominate Western Europe. As FDR sought to emulate European central planning, Mr. Clinton seeks to impose a European energy policy.

Where FDR pursued most of his agenda through Congress, Mr. Clinton has the benefit of a massive regulatory structure through which to promote his agenda. Moreover, Mr Clinton has dismantled the already weak restraints on regulatory imperialism. The new regulatory team, egged on by Vice President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, has put numerous industries on notice — from airlines to pharmaceutical makers — that the new administration finds them guilty until proven innocent. FDR sought high-profile legislation; Mr. Clinton’s team sees the benefits of back-room regulation.

Mr. Gore’s handpicked appointees now dominate the science and tech 

nology front. Moreover, the greening of the military-industrial complex has commenced with the establishment of environmental positions on the National Security Council. Environmental policy has metastasized to encompass all other policy realms. On the domestic front, his appointees are gunning for one of America’s most important growth industries — biotechnology. This is an industry for which Mr. Gore has long held an animus — he has praised the work of Jeremy Rifkin — and now he is in a position to do something about it.

Interestingly enough, in the one area where Mr. Gore’s influence was expected to be the greatest, there have been glimmers of sensibility. EPA Administrator Carol Browner’s tenure began with an unexpected attack on the merits of the 1958 Delaney Clause, an arcane statute prohibiting any detectable trace in processed foods of man-made chemicals that can cause cancer in lab animals. Ms. Browner made clear that the scientific evidence stood in contrast to the clause, and she expressed a willingness to push for significant reform. In a similar vein, the administration refrained from challenging the opening of a controversial hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, despite Mr. Gore’s campaign promise to prevent the incinerator from opening.

Predictably, these actions have triggered the ire of the environmental establishment. National Wildlife Foundation President Jay Hair exclaimed, “What kind of started out as a love affair quite frankly now is feeling more like date rape.” But no one should be misled, this spat between lovers will not last long.

Unlike the onset of FDR’s presidency, Mr. Clintons’ first 100 days has yet to produce a complete program. His economic stimulus plan provoked significant opposition. An outspoken advocate of government activism has given the GOP the rallying point it has lacked for the past four years. Only when GOP senators rolled over did FDR have it easy pushing his program through Congress. If Kansas Sen. Robert Dole and his fellow Republicans stick to their guns, they could prevent this from happening again. Let us hope they are able to follow through on their rediscovered commitment to limited government.