The special-interest pendulum swings

In 1966, I hung up my foreign correspondent's trench coat and came home to Washington, assigned by CBS to cover the Johnson Great Society programs.

One of my first stories was the start-up of Medicare on July 1 of that year. I also covered urban and rural programs; environment programs; health and welfare; and the war on poverty, conducted by a new agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity.

What struck me at the time was how dynamically the federal government was moving in to fill vacuums left by the states. The Johnson administration, expanding on the initiatives of the Kennedy administration, was forging its own links with grass-roots organizers and community-action groups, sometimes operating over the heads of state capitals and city halls.

One reason for this was that the state legislatures seemed unable to cope with the power of lobbies and special interests. It took big government to be able to deal with big lobbies.

But in recent years, the pendulum has swung.

Today the states are where the action is, while the federal government stands almost paralyzed by special-interest money, backed by special-interest-ad saturation on television.

Lobbies today - the tobacco lobby, the managed-care lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby - exhibit an awesome ability to block or dilute legislation that is in the public interest, partly by courting politicians, partly by confusing voters with TV ads about where their interests lie.

It used to be an article of faith that the aging, who vote in disproportionate numbers, enjoyed a charmed life on the political scene.

When President Reagan tried to tinker with Social Security, he ran into what became known as "the third rail." Touch it and you risk political electrocution. When an insurance program covering catastrophic illnesses was enacted with premiums that incensed many of the aging, it was hastily repealed.

Today, large blocks of voters can't count on getting their way with the federal government anymore. A Medicare subsidy for prescription drugs is bogged down in Congress. But at least 14 states have their own pharmaceutical programs and their own programs for home care for ailing seniors.

All this came home to me the other day when the food industry successfully shepherded through the Senate Agriculture Committee, without hearings, a bill that would prohibit state and local governments from requiring safety warnings on their products that are not required by federal regulation. Ironic that a Republican-led Congress would trample on state's rights.

A national government which once could be counted on to take action that states found themselves unable to take is now being employed to stop the states in their tracks. Today it is the national government, more than the states, that stands paralyzed by special interests.

States now are more resistant to powerful lobbies than is the federal government.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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