If not us, who? If not now, when?

Posted: Feb 03, 2004 12:00 AM

It's another of those ex malo bonum moments -- the kind when, piecing together recollections of high school Latin, you reflect that "out of bad, good may come." The much-advertised federal budget crunch, with attendant hand-wringing and epithet-slinging, could qualify as such an occasion. Nobody is overjoyed to contemplate a $521 billion deficit for 2005, but it's good to recall how Republicans and Democrats arrived here hand in hand: namely, by trashing the spirit of the Constitution.

A project of this magnitude takes imagination, not to mention presidential-congressional cooperation. You vote (as Congress recently did) $2 million in federal money for teaching kids to play golf and $325,000 for a local swimming pool. Small potatoes, but it adds up, to paraphrase the late, great Everett Dirksen. The commitment grows to Do Good Things. When the White House, in its 2005 budget, asks $13.3 billion for K-12 education, you smile warmly. All you want to know is, is that enough?

From the founding fathers, were they still around, we could expect splutters of "Egad, sir!" Bad habits of the past half-century have caught up with both major parties. With Republicans the shame is perhaps greater. They're supposed to lick spendthrifts, not join them.

FDR's man Harry Hopkins probably never said (as Republicans claimed he had), "We will tax and tax and spend and spend and elect and elect." Still, the words describe with a certain blunt precision the political habit of vote-buying. Not, these days, here's a fiver, see you at the polls. Rather, here's $5 million (or $5 billion) for your road/dam/courthouse/public school district/ethanol project. No explicit follow-up is indicated. The voter-recipient has got the message. He knows his friends when he sees them.

The whole unseemly process has a name -- a slobbering, lip-smacking name -- porkbarrel politics. Porkbarrel has been around since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. Its foundational cause is the love of political power.

There is a corollary explanation, though: our unwillingness to talk about the proper duties of government. We assume these days that when something -- anything -- is amiss, the federal government should act. Now technically the Constitution doesn't give the federal government a lot of latitude to perform on demand. Golf lessons for kids? Where in the Constitution do we find the slightest hint of such a governmental function? And yet . . .

Where, for that matter, do we find a federal obligation to help finance public schools? That's a state matter, right? Used to be. The schools -- alas -- weren't producing. In the late '50s, the federal government stepped in gingerly, and from there, especially during the Great Society, things really went to town.

The No Child Left Behind Act (like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) is as unconstitutional as it could be, if the letter of the Constitution means anything -- which, you can be pretty sure, it doesn't anymore. And because it doesn't, we're being asked, for fiscal 2005, to come up with $2.4 trillion, a huge portion of it to cover matters you might think highly personal, like retirement income and health care.

Conservatives are nominally the buckoes who worry about such things: which explains conservative distress over present spending trends and objects. Why no Bush vetoes of inappropriate appropriations? Edward Feulner Jr., president of conservatism's main idea factory, the Heritage Foundation, complains that "for too many conservatives in power, government has become a political, rather than principled, exercise. There is a tendency for them to play ball with the special interests and kowtow to broad demographic groups with tailored programs and well-targeted handouts."

Ex malo bonum. Will it help to think on such matters? It can't hurt. Better still to think and act.

If conservatives no longer display appreciation for conservative tenets, do we wait around for President John Kerry to straighten things out? Or, as a much-admired conservative president, Ronald Reagan, once asked, in words never improved on: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"