Commentary

Against Politics As Usual

The vile attacks on New York and Washington have united the American people in hating terrorism and in loving their country. These feelings provide a good foundation for the war on terrorism. The last thing we need is special interest politics as usual. Yet that’s where we are headed.

Take the bailout of the airlines. A plausible case could be made that the airlines were owed some compensation when the government closed the airports for four days after the attacks. At that time, industry executives indicated that the closure was costing them $300 million each day. That means the decision to close the airports cost the industry $1.2 billion. Nonetheless, the airlines asked Congress for $24 billion, and Congress passed a bill worth $15 billion to the industry. The National Journal reported that even hardened veterans of K Street lobbying firms were astonished by the audacity of the demands of the airlines.

The tourism industry is next in line. Hotels and restaurants are empty, leading to layoffs and disruptions to local economies. The “hospitality industry” in the Washington, D.C. area alone may lose $1 billion in September and October, two strong months for tourism. Not surprisingly, the Washington representatives of the tourism industry are on Capitol Hill seeking $5 billion from the public. “It’s not just about people losing jobs and having their careers ended, which is true,” said Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents, “but the country’s recovery will be materially slowed down.”

The claims to compensation are unlikely to stop with the airlines and tourism. Insurance companies face an estimated $18 billion in claims from the survivors of those killed in the World Trade Center. They can argue that while they are in the business to manage risk against fortuitous losses, they should not be completely liable for the death and destruction planned by terrorists (and not prevented by the government). Insurers also can argue that taxpayers should eventually subsidize the cost of insurance for airlines.

As the aftershocks of September 11 spread through the economy - which may have been headed for a recession prior to the attacks - we should expect that other claimants to public largesse will show up on Capitol Hill. Some, like the airlines, may be partially justified. Most will not. More than a few interest groups may conclude that the attacks have created an opportunity to win special favors. If they succeed, others will follow, a remorseless logic that creates a stampede. Even groups reluctant to make claims on Congress may conclude that they must pursue their special interest or risk losing out to competitors. America’s initial generous impulse to help those harmed by the attacks could lead to a shameful feeding frenzy of special interest legislation and regulations.

How can we avoid that? We should first recall that the Preamble to the Constitution says our government should promote the general welfare, not the interests of every particular group, even if they have been harmed by these attacks. Next, the nation will need leadership to fight the war against terrorism and to prevent the attack of the special interests. The nation elected President Bush, and he should be our first defense against special pleading. He should speak out forcefully against groups trying to exploit the attacks to legislate privileges or enact special favors. If congressional leaders seem to be caving to special pleading, the president could also stiffen their spines and raise their vision toward the common good of the nation in this time of war.

John Samples is the Director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.