- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently warned Russia to adopt the rule of law regarding Chechnya if it wants to be free, prosperous and democratic. She and her administration are constantly preaching that other nations act like us, although diplomacy insists she not say the "like us" part but everyone gets the point. She should consider the parable of the fellow who wanted to remove the speck in his neighbor's eye, while a plank was embedded in his own.

Every schoolchild at one time knew street crime was a local responsibility under our fundamental law, the Constitution. Yet, crime has become so nationalized that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, William H. Rehnquist, took Congress to task for meddling in state law simply "to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime." An American Bar Association "Federalization of Criminal Law" report found that most national law was "enacted in the absence of a demonstrated and distinctive federal justification." Indeed, "improper federalization" contributes to "long-range damage to real crime control" by diverting resources from the states, which do 95 percent of the prosecutions, and it "rarely, if ever" has "any appreciable effect on the categories of violent crime that most concern Americans." That is, it is not legal and it does not work.

Education in law and in actual spending is another state responsibility. Yet, the national government constantly intrudes, often simply wasting resources but also doing real harm to what the states and localities are trying to accomplish. Improving "standards of excellence" justify national spending. While the spending makes the headlines, the U.S. Education Department quietly issues "guidelines" that make merit impossible to implement. While claiming guidelines are not law and supporting "good test use practices," department assistant Norma V. Cantu also cautioned against improper use of "high stakes" tests that might have "disparate impact" against minorities. This is precisely how testing for professional positions was halted in the federal civil service by the Jimmy Carter administration.

The standards to "justify" the tests before the courts once minorities failed the tests at higher rates than whites proved impossible to meet under the guidelines (which the courts did treat as law) so the tests were abandoned. This, in fact, is the plan for the local school districts too, by simple decree. Some rule of law.

Welfare is another area where local and state governments properly spend the great majority of the funds but where the Feds try to call the tune. President Clinton and the Republican Congress brag constantly about reducing the federal strings on welfare programs. While some guidelines were loosened, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala recently announced that federal agents would begin conducting reviews of foster care, adoption and family services for troubled families programs on-site at state agencies beginning March 25. "This regulation demonstrates a critical and significant shift in holding states accountable," Miss Shalala crowed, not disguising the arrogance of Washington parent scolding state child. Again, she acted by regulation rather than a change in law and without GOP opposition.

Not to be outdone, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended that President Clinton again bypass Congress and simply create three new national monuments and expand a fourth. In 1996, Mr. Clinton designated 1.7 million acres in Utah as a new monument without legislative authorization and this January, again by simple decree, added 1 million acres in the Grand Canyon area, 814 miles of the California coast out to a distance of 12 miles, 71,100 acres in Arizona's Agua Fria region and 7,960 acres near San Jose. One may consider this not a bad land grab considering it lacked legal authority but even it pales next to what the Wall Street Journal calls the American civil justice "jackpot," where lawyers sue for damages without even regulatory authority but with stories sad enough to melt the iciest heart.

Commenting upon a particularly silly award, the editors hoped that "some Russian mafiosi asks Strobe Talbott [or his boss Mrs. Albright] just how it is in America that a bunch of plaintiffs lawyers can be handed $8.2 billion for shaking down some politically out-of-favor U.S. business. Is this what's known as 'crony capitalism?' "

In the Age of Clinton, one may ask what difference this lawlessness makes? Putting aside rightness, the problem is that it makes leaders think they can get away with anything they have the power to do. Today, America is on top of the world, without serious threats. So were Britain, France and the United States in 1931 when they righteously forced exchange controls on a helpless Germany, triggering asset transfers, bank failures and liquidated reserves, which undermined mark, franc, pound and dollar, triggering world inflation, the Nazis and ultimately war. Sure, no one can stop us from doing whatever we want but mother nature has a way of paying back.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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