- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

Reporter John Stossel had scheduled an interview with former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt with a specific question in mind: If the department did such a lousy job managing its existing assets and Mr. Stossel had evidence to suggest that it had why did the Department of the Interior want even more land to mismanage? But Mr. Stossel never got to ask that question. He says the secretary stalked out of the interview and announced he was going to fire the person who scheduled it. Then he left. It's all on camera. Mr. Babbitt could not be reached for comment.

It's not hard to understand Mr. Babbitt's reluctance given the record of his and other federal agencies. Mr. Stossel argues, for example, that although the Department of the Interior has spent billions on behalf of Indian tribes around the country, the tribes remain among the poorest people in the country. Try to imagine what would happen to a private firm with a similarly appalling record. Imagine the allegations of profiteering at the expense of some of the country's poorest and most vulnerable minorities. Imagine the congressional hearings. Aside from Mr. Stossel and conservative interest groups, however, few persons attempt to apply to government agencies the same standards of performance that apply to everyone else.

It would be nice to think that the Department of the Interior would be the exception rather than the rule in Washington. But as Mr. Stossel reports in an ABC program scheduled to begin tonight at 10, "John Stossel goes to Washington," the reverse may be true. "Washington has become a kind of grab bag," he says in the show's opening sequence. "Who pays for it all? You do: Joe Taxpayer."

Mr. Stossel reports on the case of charities who find that far from helping private groups assist the poor, the government makes it more difficult. Complains one member of a San Francisco-based relief group, there are so many regulations dictating how and when charities may provide assistance that "if Jesus Christ … wanted to start Christianity, he wouldn't be able to do it." From such hyperbole, readers should construe not limitations on the Almighty but the government-generated difficulties facing mortals trying to do the Lord's work.

Mr. Stossel's solution is nonetheless to return many of the charitable functions that government has effectively nationalized. Editors here couldn't agree more. Still much of the problem has to do with federal withholding policies that automatically send taxpayer dollars to Washington whether the programs funded work or not. The more people like John Stossel ask questions of government officials, the stronger the case for giving taxpayers a chance to see if they couldn't do better.

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