DeLay Goes to Washington
By Ernest Partridge, The
Who is better qualified to spend your money, you or the
government in Washington?
George W. Bush
Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals,
which might endanger the security of the whole society,
are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments.
Adam Smith, The Wealth
This was an important day in the life of Congressman Tom
DeLay (R. Texas). He had to catch an early flight from Houston
to Washington, in time to lead the fight in Congress to protect
us all against the encroachment of "Big Government" in our
And so, upon awaking to his clock-radio, he learned from
the US Weather Service that the flying weather was ideal,
but that later in the week a tropical storm was likely to
hit Houston. So he made a note to have the storm windows put
up. He then enjoyed a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs, certified
Grade A by the US Department of Agriculture, and dutifully
took his daily prescriptions, pronounced safe and effective
by the Food and Drug Administration. While at the table, he
checked the stock quotes in the morning paper, assured by
the Securities and Exchange Commission that he had not been
swindled. On the way to the airport, he stopped at the bank
to take out some pocket money, and was not at all surprised
to find that his account was intact, as guaranteed by The
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation .
His flight took off on time and without incident, after the
aircraft had been certified as safe, and his flight cleared
for take-off, by personnel of the Federal Aviation Agency.
Three hours later, Tom DeLay arrived at "Reagan National
Airport" safe, healthy and financially secure, thanks to all
the above "big government bureaucracies" and still others
too numerous to mention. Firm in his conviction that his fellow
taxpayers were "better qualified than the government to spend
their own money," DeLay then led the successful fight to return
$1.3 billion of federal taxes "to the people" (more than half
of it to the wealthiest two-percent of "the people.")
"Who is better qualified to spend your money - you or the
federal government?" George Bush' challenge came to mind recently,
as I was watching the movie, "The Perfect Storm." Because
the Captain chose to ignore the warnings of the National Weather
Service, the "Andrea Gail" went down with the loss of all
hands. Other crews, less dismissive of "big government bureaucracy"
paid heed and survived. And when a sailboat, caught in the
storm, was about to sink, the Coast Guard, answering their
distress call, rescued the helpless crew. It is doubtful that,
at that moment, any of those rescued sailors felt that this
big government agency was less qualified than they to deal
with the emergency.
And so we are led to ask: are we as individuals, or the government,
better qualified to
deliver the mail.
predict the weather
ensure that our food is safe to eat
determine the safety and efficacy of our medicines
monitor and respond to epidemics
identify and mitigate environmental pollution
support "economically useless" basic scientific research
Speaking for myself, I am not prepared to devote the time
and expense, or to gain the expertise, to set up a laboratory
in my basement to determine if my food and drugs are safe
and effective. Nor can I run off to Wall Street and carry
out a private investigation to find out if my investments
are safe from violations of the securities laws, nor am I
qualified to check the innards of a passenger jet to see if
it is flight-worthy, and I have no idea how to direct air
In all these cases, and countless more, I will readily concede
that I am less qualified than the appropriate government agencies
to "spend my tax money."
Neither are these proper functions for "the private sector,"
for in each case, these are regulatory activities - the enforcement
of laws and regulations upon self-interested parties in behalf
of the general public. It makes no more sense to "privatize"
government regulation and services, than it would be to have
the referees of a pro-football game in the employ of one of
the teams, or to have the police force under the control of
organized crime. (Alas, not unheard of).
A case in point: in 1962, the pharmaceutical industry put
pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to release the
sedative drug, thalidomide, for general distribution. That
pressure was steadfastly resisted by an FDA "bureaucrat,"
Dr. Francis Kelsey, who thus prevented the birth of thousands
of malformed infants.
Another case: in 1934, the federal government established
the Federal Communications Commission, in order to regulate
"traffic" in the broadcast spectrum. Significantly, the FCC
was enacted at the insistence of the broadcast industry, which
finally came to realize that without a neutral agency to assign
frequencies, electronic chaos and cacophony would result.
With all these manifest services afforded to all United States
citizens by the federal government, why do Tom DeLay and his
political allies regard that same government as if it were
The answer may be found in his pre-political career. Before
he ran for public office, Tom DeLay was in the pesticide business.
In that business, he came face-to-face with "big government
interference," when the Environmental Protection Agency told
him that he could no longer sell or use such pesticides as
DDT. This regulation, the result of many years and millions
of dollars of government sponsored scientific research, benefitted
song birds, birds of prey, and oh yes, young children and
other vulnerable critters. At the same time, this "big government
decree" was a damned nuisance to the chemical industry and
to pest controllers such as DeLay, who came to refer to the
EPA as a "Gestapo."
What business is it of "big government" to tell Tom DeLay
that he can't poison his neighbors and the ecosystem, as he
goes about his business of eliminating "pests"?
The answer is as close as the founding documents of our Republic.
"To secure these rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness, states the Declaration of Independence, "governments
are instituted among men." And in the Preamble to the Constitution,
we find that the government is established, among other things,
to "promote the general welfare."
If it is the legitimate function of government to protect
the lives, liberties and property of its citizens, then it
is clearly the function of government to regulate the activities
of private individuals and corporations that threaten these
lives, liberties and property. As history testifices, entrepreneurs
like Tom DeLay do not like to be told that the internal organs
of unconsenting citizens are inappropriate catchments of their
chemical residues. Meat packers don't like to have government
inspectors around while they are making sausages. Drug companies
do not like to be told that they can't put opium in their
cough medicine, and that they cannot put a drug on the market
before it has been proven both safe and effective. Mine owners
have fewer qualms than government inspectors about putting
their workers' lives in peril. Broadcasters don't like to
be told that the public airwaves that they are freely given
must contain some "public service" content, or that opinions
other than their own deserve a fair hearing.
And most urgently, the Enron Corporation found federal regulation
so distasteful that it arranged to disarm the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission and the Security and Exchange Commission,
while invested millions in "gifts" to pundits and in "contributions"
to members of Congress. Then the senior corporate officers
"took the money and ran," leaving thousands of their employees
without their live savings.
Make no mistake: if we abandon federal regulation and oversight
(called by conservatives "government control of our lives"),
this does not mean that "control" will necessarily devolve
to each of us ordinary citizens. As isolated private individuals,
we are all too often ill-equipped to protect our interests
against the assaults of impersonal corporate power. The history
of the late nineteenth century bears out this observation.
Absent the protections of "big government," our food will
once again be tainted, and our drugs again unsafe and ineffective.
Pest controllers like Tom DeLay will once again spread poison
on to the land, heedless of the "side-effects" once the primary
objective of "zapping the bugs" has been achieved. The free
and diverse press which Jefferson regarded as essential to
democracy and as (take note!) an indispensable constraint
upon the abuses of governmental power, will be replaced by
the monotone voice of media conglomerates in the service of
wealth and power.
One must be deliberately ignorant not to notice that we have
traveled far along this road in the past two decades, as the
(so called) "conservatives" have scored significant victories
in their campaign against the "abuses of big government."
Only an alert, outraged and active citizenry can undo the
Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the
field of Environmental Ethics He publishes the website, "The
Online Gadfly" www.igc.org/gadfly.