No big government -- except to sort out football

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Herewith two snapshots, taken last week less than 24 hours apart, of Congress during what Republicans advertise as the rigors of re-limiting the government.

On a slow Senate afternoon, C-SPAN2 is covering the antitrust subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. A handsome, nattily attired, solidly assembled young man is testifying, with lucidity and dignity and feeling, about what he and some sympathetic senators consider an injustice requiring congressional attention.

He was a wide receiver on last year's University of Wyoming football team, which had a 10-2 record in the Western Athletic Conference but did not get invited to a bowl game.

Wyoming's two Republican senators, Craig Thomas and Mike Enzi, want something done about the problem that is damaging (in Mr. Thomas' sweetly ingenuous formulation) the "integrity of college football."

Brigham Young University won the conference championship with a 13-1 record, was ranked fifth in the nation, yet did not get invited to a major bowl.

Scoundrel time

Utah's two Republican senators, Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch (who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee), want something done about the scoundrel responsible for this.

The scoundrel is the Bowl Alliance, composed of some powerhouse conferences -- but not the Western -- and Notre Dame. They agree that the winner of each conference is guaranteed a spot in a premier bowl game. Notre Dame gets no guarantee but its glamour, which has a cash value in drawing a television audience, is a semi-guarantee.

Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is an alumnus of the University of Louisville, whose unhappy coach testifies. Senator McConnell says the alliance may violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. Perhaps it is akin to the old Standard Oil. It certainly limits competition for the biggest paydays in college football, and makes for cranky coaches and fans, sad alumni (who are apt to be stingy), disappointed players and therefore agitated senators. McConnell wants college football to have a national championship akin to the "March Madness" in college basketball.

See, there is more to Republicanism than speechifying about the end of the era of big government. There is higher-education policy, declaring the Bowl Alliance a federal offense and a stench in the nostrils of the national legislature.

The morning after this hearing, the Senate is in session to pass the budget resolution, which it does, after brushing aside, as a bear would a cobweb, a point of order raised by Phil Gramm. With the impatience that makes him insufferable to many of his colleagues, and the accuracy that makes him doubly so, he points out that Congress' solemn budget vow (to balance the budget in five years under terms just negotiated) violates a solemn budget vow made four years ago.

In 1993 Congress, controlled by Democrats, committed itself to certain spending caps through fiscal 1998. The problem, the mischievous Mr. Gramm notes, is that the budget resolution authorizes more discretionary spending than the sum that Congress in 1993 said it would -- cross its heart and hope to die, this time we really mean it, seriously -- limit itself to.

No problem, says the Senate briskly, as it votes 66-33 to waive what it said in 1993. This probably was a preview of an event in 2001. Then there probably will be a bipartisan agreement to waive Congress' 1997 vow, and a promise -- by golly this time we seriously mean business -- to balance the budget by 2007. And then in 2006 Congress will waive . . .

A "defining moment"

So, last week a Republican-controlled Congress voted to break through a spending ceiling imposed by a Democratic-controlled Congress. Senator Gramm called this a "defining moment."

Defining moments come thick and fast these days, as when the chairman of the House Budget Committee, John Kasich, R-Ohio, said the budget agreement would "save taxpayers over $950 billion." With such statements Republicans embrace a rhetorical formulation that just two years ago they ridiculed -- counting as budget "cuts" or "savings" the difference between authorized spending and some higher baseline of previously anticipated spending. Here is how it works:

At last year's Fourth of July picnic you drank two beers and had a jolly time. This year you anticipate drinking six beers. But then you decide that the era of big beer drinking is over and you vow to drink just four beers. So you announce that you are cutting your beer consumption by one-third.

In year three of the Republican ascendancy, being virtuous is a snap, and almost everything -- everything but the Bowl Alliance -- is right with the world.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/29/97

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