The Myth of Unfunded Mandates

While we are on the topic of Republican rhetorical tricks, the "unfunded mandate" is one of the most egregious and successful examples. It is an idea, entirely plausible at first blush, that lacks any substance whatever.

In To Renew America, Mr. Gingrich claims he learned about unfunded mandates from the Mayor of Los Angeles, who complained that it would cost the city $500 million to obey an EPA mandate to clean up the Los Angeles River, "which for most of the year is little more than a drainage ditch within concrete embankments." The city could have used the same money instead to "hire 5,000 new policemen."

Put this way, it seems very unfair that the city cannot decide its own destiny and is forced to spend money to clean up a useless, scraggly little river. But by casting the issue in terms of unfunded mandates, Mr. Gingrich is not simply raising the question of whether the federal government has made the right policy choices. He is, instead, asking a more fundamental procedural question: whether the federal government can indeed set national policy without paying for the implementation.

Once we understand the question, we also understand he does not really mean it. For all the talk of decentralizing the government and handing more authority back to the states, the Contract Republicans do not stand for the proposition that we are not a nation, that there is no field for national policy, nor (least of all) that it is the job of Congressmen to eliminate their own jobs.

Instead, the phrase "unfunded mandates" is a simple verbal deception, a description of any national policy directive of which Contract Republicans do not approve. For it is the essence of a national government that it will make laws that inconvenience someone, somewhere, and inconvenience almost always costs money.

Mr. Gingrich and the Contract Republicans, of course, have proposed and passed laws that cost money. A tax cut itself is a measure that costs money; the residents of New Jersey are discovering that as a result of governor Christine Whitman's income tax cut, their property taxes are rising rapidly. Under the theory of "unfunded mandates", property owners are being made to subsidize what income earners paid for before. Why is this not an unfunded mandate for which the state should pay?

The Telecommunications Reform Act, which Congress is finalizing as I write, will set cable companies free to compete with phone companies and vice versa and will lead to a radical realignment of the industry. Some companies with secure monopolies today will lose money as a result. Should the government pay to make up for it? Local cable companies may raise prices to subscribers; should the government pay?

Congressional supporters of the NRA may hand us a wonderful gift this Christmas: repeal of the semi-automatic weapon ban. This provision is being snuck through during the Christmas confusion because the American public, which favors the ban by a solid majority, is engaged elsewhere and (it is hoped) will have forgotten the betrayal by the time the Congress returns from recess. As a result of the new proliferation of semiautomatics on urban streets, uninsured youths with horrendous gunshot wounds will start showing up in public hospitals again, and you and I will pay for their care via our state and municipal taxes. If the Contract Republicans are so intent on repaying their debt to the NRA, why should they do it with my taxes? Shouldn't the federal government reimburse the full cost of treating gunshot wounds?

"Unfunded mandates" are a hypocritical dodge, mainly an excuse for ending environmental measures while Congress engages in a different kind of costly social re-engineering.