What A Congress

As1998 draws to a close, it’s appropriate to look back at the most significant deregulatory successes that have been achieved during the year. Where should I begin? First of all, there was the, uh…er… Well, who could forget the… At least we won the…

Well, there must have been something. But, all in all, this has been a pretty gloomy year for those interested in rolling back the regulatory state. I don’t want to dampen holiday spirits unnecessarily, but regulatory victories were rarer than a Washington Redskins touchdown.

Not that regulation wasn’t on the agenda. But as often as not, the push was for increasing – not decreasing – the government’s role in our lives. Massive new controls on energy use due to a global warming treaty. Expanded antitrust regulations that would punish economic success. Proposals for the first controls on airline pricing since 1978. Legislation calling for more mandates on health care, limiting the choices of patients.

Even more distressing, the rulemaking parade was often led by purportedly limited-government Republicans. Who could forget, for instance, the Microsoft hearings staged by Senator Orrin Hatch, orchestrated so precisely that they would have made Jesse Ventura blush?

The bright side of the picture is that few of those initiatives have succeeded. (Though several still may.) That, at least, is the bright side: victories were as scarce in 1998 for supporters of federal regulation as for the opponents. Legislatively, the 1998 battles in Congress were a bit like the 1915 battles in Europe. Sure, a lot of shots were fired, but in the end, the trenches were basically in the same place.

Of course, a war analogy only goes so far, since it implies that both sides know what they are shooting at, and know how to fire. That’s the disturbing thing. While perhaps earning a "tie," the opponents of regulation still seem unwilling or unable to articulate a clear vision of where they want to go and why. (And why the average guy would want to go there too.)

Without a clear message of this sort, victories are unlikely, as shown by last month’s elections. Republican messages were few and far between. There was Monica, of course, but that didn’t seem to go far with the public. People instead were interested in what would affect them. But, the GOP didn’t seem to have much else to say. While opponents hammered away at education, welfare, and other issues, the GOP ran what has been called a "Seinfeld" campaign – a campaign about nothing. It didn’t work.

Hopefully, opponents of regulation will learn from this. There’s a strong, positive message they could be – and aren’t – articulating on regulatory issues. Instead of taking a soft, "me too" line on global warming regulations, they can be pointing out how restrictions on energy use will hurt America’s quality of life, especially for the poor. Instead of backing away from antitrust policy, they can show how it punishes success and hurts average consumers, not just Bill Gates. Instead of jumping on the anti-HMO bandwagon in imposing new health care regulation, they could be making the case for tax changes that would give people the ability to choose their own health insurance.

In the 1987 movie, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," there is a scene where Steve Martin expresses his exasperation with a somewhat verbose John Candy. Here’s a good idea, Martin says. Next time you tell a story, "have a point." This should be kept in mind when the 106th Congress convenes in January. The points are out there. They only have to be made.