Washington. -- An administration, defining itself by thousands of actions, is like a pointillist painting: One must stand back to see the pattern. The Clinton administration's emerging self-portrait is not a pretty picture but it is becoming a clear one. It is a picture of an aggressive and comprehensive power grab.
Under the "motor voter" law, states are required to allow people to register to vote while applying for a driver's license or at welfare agencies. People who will get registered only at such places are apt to be disposed to vote for a giving government -- for Democrats. An election official in California, where one-ninth of the nation's electorate lives and which has one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the White House, expects "motor voter" to increase the state's registration by 15 percent -- three million people.
Big government itself has become the nation's biggest special interest; public-employees unions provide virtually all the growth of organized labor; government workers are one of the Democratic Party's two (the other being African-Americans) mainstay constituencies. So Congress is liberalizing the Hatch Act which since 1939 has restricted political activities by federal employees.
Congress passed that act to end the Roosevelt administration's coercion of federal workers into partisan activities. Making political activity permissible may make it semi-obligatory. And the person who audits your tax return will be able, after work, to solicit a political contribution from you.
Mr. Clinton has rescinded the executive order that required federal contractors to post notices telling non-union workers that they are not obliged to join unions and that they have a right to stop unions from using money collected in lieu of dues for political activities the workers oppose. He also rescinded the order forbidding federal agencies and contractors hired by the federal government from requiring workers on construction projects to be unionized.
His campaign "reform" plan would enhance the already substantial activities of incumbents, most of whom are Democrats. It would use coercive "incentives" to compel candidates to accept public financing coupled with "voluntary" limits on campaign spending. Spending limits generally hurt challengers because only by spending on media exposure can they compensate for such incumbents' advantages as name recognition, access to media, franked mail and the political use of the government's $1.5 trillion budget.
"Soft-money" is the term for donations given to parties and other groups to get around limits on giving to candidates. Mr. Clinton's plan only limits soft money given to parties, a traditional Republican advantage. It does not limit, or even require reporting of, soft money given, for example, to labor unions, faithful servants of the Democratic Party.
Last November Republicans gained five seats in the House. House Democrats promptly gave the five delegates (all Democrats) from Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the right to vote on the floor when the House is functioning as a "committee of the whole," the mode it is in when most significant decisions are taken.
This year in the House, more than ever before, members of the minority party, and Democrats dissenting from liberal orthodoxy, are being prevented from offering amendments to major bills. They are prevented by the Democratic-controlled Rules Committee, which adopts "restrictive" or even "closed" rules rather than "open" rules for particular bills heading for the floor.
The percentage of "open" rules has been declining as Democratic arrogance has been rising, down from 85 percent in 1977-78 to 54 percent in 1987-88 to 34 percent in 1991-92. Under this year's gagging procedures (until open rules were adopted this week on two trivial bills), 11 of the 12 rules have been "closed."
By making lobbyists Ron Brown and Mickey Kantor commerce secretary and trade representative respectively, President Clinton put policy in the hands of two people with -- to put it politely -- no principled objection to government parceling out presents to special interests. Protectionism and "industrial policy" can transform entire sectors of the economy, and even particular firms, into wards of the state. The automobile, airline and aerospace industries already are pleading for the status of dependents, and others will follow them.
The administration's perversion of the idea of enterprise zones is a form of industrial policy. Enterprise zones were proposed in the 1970s as an alternative to such Washington-driven debacles as "model cities" and "urban renewal." Such zones were to invigorate inner-city areas where tax breaks for job-creating investments would unleash entrepreneurial energies. But under President Clinton's plan, Washington would micromanage local zones, requiring local officials to satisfy a federal "Enterprise Board" about a "coordinated economic, human, community and physical development plan." This would enable Washington to dictate even more political favors.
President Reagan assembled his majority from people who believed government was, on balance, becoming an impediment. President Clinton is in a four-year -- to cobble together a majority composed of groups eager to be, or reconciled to being, wards of government. This is the core of Clintonism. It is an ideology demanding a vast expansion of government power so that those doing the expanding may never have to relinquish that power.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.