The Clinton administration was famous for obsessing about tiny, innocuous issues, like promoting school uniforms and opposing TV violence. But the era of trivial government came to an end on Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans got a reminder that their government has some truly vital duties and that it might be worthwhile to concentrate on them.
As far as I know, al-Qaida has yet to surrender, and a few other formidable problems have presented themselves since then. But having failed to solve the big, critical problems, our leaders are once again inclined to focus on inconsequential ones that happen to be none of their business.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., for example, thinks it should be a violation of federal law to board an airliner with a bag that exceeds 22 inches by 18 inches by 10 inches. He wants his rule enforced by the same Transportation Security Administration agents who are supposed to protect us from the next Mohammad Atta.
You might think that if you invest vast amounts of money establishing and operating an airline, at great financial risk, you would be entitled to make your own choices on things like the color of planes and the rules for carry-ons. But one member of Congress wants to make sure he never has trouble squeezing his luggage into an overhead bin because someone else has taken up too much space.
That's not all. Lipinski once had to wait 50 minutes for a checked bag. So he thinks carriers should pay fines when they don't get suitcases to passengers immediately.
But why stop there? Why not mandate more legroom and bigger restrooms? Why not demand a free copy of Sports Illustrated or Cosmopolitan for every passenger? Why not require flight attendants to give each of us a teddy bear to clutch in case of turbulence?
Lipinski is not alone in dreaming up uses for the idle hands of Congress. In recent months, both the House and the Senate have taken a pause from addressing the $1.8 trillion budget deficit and preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons to ponder the atrocity known as the Bowl Championship Series, which uses polls and bowl games to determine the No. 1 college football team in the country.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a Texas A&M University graduate, thinks the BCS is "deeply flawed." But anyone who roots for the A&M football team (as I do) knows it makes the BCS look as perfect as a Mozart concerto. Why doesn't Barton hold hearings on why the Aggie defense couldn't stop a bathtub drain last year?
If Utah wants to go through a playoff, it is welcome to try to persuade other universities to join with it in repudiating the scandalous status quo. But if the other schools are content with the BCS, why should the desires of the Mountain West Conference trump those of the other conferences? Answer: because some members of Congress think the only preference that should count is theirs.
Then there is the Obama administration's plan to man our borders against the import of pocketknives that can be opened with only one hand. This builds on one of Washington's more ridiculous gestures, the 1958 federal law against switchblades -- which drew attention not because they were more dangerous than other knives but because they were immortalized in movies about teenage hoodlums. This knife, declared a Senate committee, is "almost exclusively the weapon of the thug and the delinquent."
It was a silly idea at the time, and it doesn't make any more sense in an age where gangs have a penchant for settling disputes with a hail of bullets. But that doesn't stop administration officials from targeting even more knives to address "health and public safety concerns raised by such importations."
Are they serious? Do they really think that if you deprive a violent criminal of one sort of pocketknife, it will never occur to him to use a different and equally lethal pointed implement?
Maybe there are criminals out there who are really that stupid. If so, they missed their calling in government, where the mental deficiency would never be noticed.