Congress has been out of session for a week, and I feel better already. It doesn’t matter which party is in power — late at night, when I stroll home from the Capitol Lounge and see that light on atop the Capitol, I feel dismay at the thought of what harm our national legislators are doing — prescription drug benefits? Higher taxes? Wage controls?
To be sure, my view on the value of Congress has been challenged over this Presidents’ Day recess week. In the political vacuum, the non-stop Anna-Nicole-Britney-K-Fed-Judge-what’s-his-name coverage has made it impossible to watch any of the three cable news channels — there’s no refuge except for CNBC. And as attractive as I find Maria Bartiromo to be, I have still at times longed for the demagogic politicians whose predictable commentaries normally fill out the dull moments of our 24-hour news cycle.
But that feeling doesn’t last long. I still say more Anna Nicole, please, just keep Congress away for another week! A look at the past year’s silly new laws offers us three lessons: First, there is no end to the insanity that one can perpetrate in the name of public health and safety. Second, there is no legislative substitute for human prudence in one’s personal choices. And third, one need not ban everything that seems bad nor mandate everything that seems good.
In Congress, legislators have lots of opportunities to hurt you, but they usually just try to control your life through the tax code. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last month to levy an excise tax on all “non-alternative fuel vehicles” at retail purchase. If it passes, then you’d better go out right now and buy that “gas-guzzler” as soon as possible. If you wait until next year, the Lofgren Tax goes up from 5 percent to 10 percent of the purchase price on your car, escalating to 80 percent in 2011 (and yes, the bill actually inserts the term “gas-guzzler” into the federal code).
If big, silly government is “on the march” at the federal level, it has been making much greater gains on the state and local level, with the remaining freedoms of city-dwellers most at risk.
In the District of Columbia, the long-respected rights of property owners (not to mention the informal “right” of smokers just to have a good time) have been unceremoniously revoked by an overzealous city council. Beginning January 1, the right to allow or disallow bar and restaurant patrons to smoke was taken out of the hands of those who rightfully own and operate these businesses. This is supposedly for the health and safety of employees, except at the three or four bars where smoking is still allowed (those employees apparently don’t count). Before the ban, there were more than 200 institutions where non-smoking waiters could work and non-smoking patrons could visit without risking a whiff of the demon tobacco, but that wasn’t enough – everyone must conform and comply, or else.
After Bangor, Maine prohibited smoking in the car with children present, such bans have been proposed all over the country, including Connecticut and Montana. The sponsor of the similar ban in California notes that her 13-year-old daughter “can’t stand riding in cars with smokers.” So here’s an idea, kid: crack a window. Or better, get a ride with someone else. It makes sense not to smoke with kids in the car, but do we really need a law to solve this problem? When I grow up and buy a car someday, will the cops be pulling me over to make sure everyone inside is over 18?
In Philadelphia and New York City, the silliness has progressed even further with bans on “trans fats,” which cause various health problems and apparently turn unsuspecting diners into fat slobs through no fault of their own. In the old days, it would have been enough just to launch a public education campaign and scare people in order to create market demand for healthier food. In fact, it was just such a health campaign against less dangerous saturated fats that popularized the use of trans fat-laden vegetable oils in the first place (thank you very much, Center for Science in the Public Interest). The same health-agitators are back to assert their relevance in solving a problem they created, but now they’re into legislative action instead of just scaring people. As Americans become less vigilant against excessive regulation by the government, it has become de rigeur to legislate away any problem in life we find potentially annoying or slightly unsafe.
Some have complained of New York’s ban on driving while on the cell phone, but now the guardians of Gotham have proposed a statewide ban on walking while on the phone, or even while listening to an iPod. What, exactly, is the purpose of an iPod if you can’t listen to it while you’re on the move? Remember the “Walkman?”
In California, an outcry from parents has only slightly altered attempts by a childless legislator to ban the spanking of children — she’s still pushing her bill, contrary to some published reports. Convicted spankers would, among other things, be forced to attend “non-violent parental education classes.” Good parental judgement is probably a better guide than a state statute for understanding the difference between teaching a lesson and genuinely hurting a child. But the real aim of this law is to create an atmosphere of fear. Around every corner there’s some well-meaning Starbucks-drinker with no kids, ready to call 911 the second you give junior a swat for running out into traffic. (Comedian Carlos Mencia recommends that when your kids act up, just bring them to a Salvadoran restaurant and go to town on them there.)
I sympathize with the plight of our elected officials, worried sick every night that some irresponsible father, driving down some dark highway, is smoking a cigarette with one hand and using a ruler to spank his kid with the other. I bet he’s munching on McDonald’s French fries and talking on a cell phone (making intolerant remarks about some disadvantaged group, no doubt), and he probably isn’t even driving a hybrid!
Still, there are more pressing worries. For the good of all, we may need a law that keeps Congress, state legislatures, and city councils across the country from meeting and legislating more than a few months out of the year.
Then again that’s just common sense, so I guess we don’t need a law. Right?
David Freddoso is a political reporter for Evans and Novak Inside Report