AS BILL CLINTON wound up his big health-care sermon on Capitol Hill last month, Sen. Ted Kennedy rushed to shake his hand.
"I've waited a long time to hear a president of the United States make that speech," Kennedy gushed. "This is my issue."
Clinton can bank on Kennedy's help in pushing his national health-care scheme. For 25 years, after all, Doc Kennedy's home remedy for the American medical system has been to have Big Brother take over the whole thing. The Clinton plan doesn't go quite that far. But anyone with a plan to make government bigger, feed it more money, or give it more power can usually count on having Ted Kennedy for an ally.
Bill and Hillary Clinton have been downplaying the government price controls built into their health plan. But Ted has never downplayed his appetite for federal control: When he ran for president, he vowed to "impose . . . mandatory controls, as long as necessary, across the board -- not only on prices and wages, but also profits, dividends, interest rates, and rent."
Poking around in Kennedy's record back in 1982, during his fourth re-election campaign, I uncovered a telling statistic: Of 394 government agencies, bureaus, and commissions considered by Congress since Kennedy had entered the Senate, he'd voted against . . . two. Two! Let somebody hatch an idea for swelling the federal government, and Ted Kennedy becomes the Ado Annie of the U.S. Congress: He's just a senator who cain't say no.
So how does he react when somebody -- especially a Democratic somebody -- hatches an idea to shrink the government?
Vice President Al Gore is the point man on the Clinton administration's "Reinventing Government" blueprint to carve $110 billion out of the federal behemoth by making it less wasteful and more efficient. Can he can expect the same kind of arm-pumping enthusiasm for his leaner-government plan that his old Senate colleague is showing the Clintons for their fatter-government plan? Or if not enthusiasm, at least lip service?
One way to find out is to ask. I phoned Kennedy's press aide to get a copy of any statements or speeches the senator had issued on the subject of "Reinventing Government." Since Kennedy's office seems to put out statements on everything - Somalia, male-pattern baldness, the new Victoria's Secret catalog, you name it -- he must have had something to say about Gore's big project. The aide said she'd fax the material right over.
But whatever kind words Kennedy might say about downsizing government, his actions speak louder.
Last month, for instance, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. announced some fairly dramatic downsizing plans. With the economy improving, bank failures -- which had soared alarmingly over the past decade -- are now few and far between. The FDIC's liquidation division can safely be cut in half, Chairman Andrew Hove said. Some 3,000 employees would be let go; the 22 regional offices would be consolidated into seven.
In Massachusetts, that would mean closing the Westborough and Franklin offices over the next three years, and gradually laying off about 900 workers (all of whom would receive outplacement services, and most of whom had only been hired temporarily to begin with). By 1997, the taxpayers would have saved $430 million
Good news? Not to Kennedy. He may not fret when Digital lays off 20,000 employees in a single year, or when Grossman's decides to shut 22 stores. But reduce the government's payroll? Eliminate superfluous federal jobs? Over his dead body.
Kennedy twisted arms at the FDIC. Within three weeks, the agency reversed itself. "FDIC decides to eliminate layoff plans" ran the headline in the local paper. Below it, in a box, was Kennedy's comment:
"I'm very pleased that the agency has revised its plan for these ill-considered layoffs. This is welcome news . . ."
Only to someone to whom the idea of moderation in government is abhorrent.
Which brings us back to Kennedy's thoughts on "Reinventing Government."
The press aide called back the next day.
"We can't find any formal text or written statement," she reported, sounding a little sheepish. "Apparently, the senator has not said anything on the subject."
(Jeff Jacoby is the Boston Herald's chief editorial writer.)
-- ## --