Flame Posies

Therapeutic Laws

Legislation designed to make you feel good, not to do anything.

Bill Clinton wants to be an activist chief executive, but a paradox of his own making stands in the way. In his last State of the Union address, he repudiated big government. “We know there’s not a program for every problem,” he said. “The era of big government is over.” With the help of Dick Morris, Clinton has turned this paradox, this–let’s face it–logical contradiction, into an electoral strength. Clever rhetoric has helped. But so did his embrace of what might be called “therapeutic legislation.”

Therapeutic legislation is intended to make people feel good, not actually to accomplish anything. Sometimes, it addresses a virtually nonexistent problem or, at least, a problem that ranks lower on any sensible scale of national concerns than the fuss and self-congratulation would indicate. Sometimes, it addresses real, major problems, but in an almost totally symbolic manner. Often, therapeutic legislation exploits the electorate’s short attention span, its capacity to become suddenly obsessed with an issue and then–especially if provided with legislative catharsis–to forget it just as quickly. In any case, therapeutic legislation costs the taxpayer little or nothing and generally offends almost no one. (In an important subclass of therapeutic legislation, however, stagily offending an unpopular interest group–e.g., the tobacco lobby–is part of the therapy.)

This week, Clinton signed another of the many therapeutic laws for which he has taken credit. This one makes stalking across interstate lines or on U.S. government property a federal offense, punishable by five years to life in prison. The law was sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, proving that Democrats aren’t alone in the dirty habit of pleasuring themselves this way. The anti-stalking law is typical of much therapeutic legislation in that it addresses a hunger for the federal government to do something about a matter–usually crime or education–that is properly the concern of the states. I wouldn’t be so callous as to suggest that stalking isn’t an urgent problem, fully worthy of immediate action by a Congress that can’t pass a budget on time. But is stalking across state lines or on federal property really such a pressing concern? Undoubtedly it is terrifying when it happens (as it apparently happened to Sen. Hutchison). The reason Congress and the president have outlawed it with such a flourish, however, is as a way of expressing symbolic concern over stalking in general. Sen. Hutchison’s office concedes that it has collected no information on the number of interstate stalking cases.

Indeed, if there were thousands of interstate stalkers, if they did pose a serious law-enforcement problem, Hutchison’s legislation would have smoked out some sort of constituency to oppose the bill. If a stalkers’ lobby itself didn’t pipe up, at least civil libertarians who deplore the double-jeopardy implications of a federal stalking law would have criticized it. Instead, Hutchison’s solution to the nonproblem passed 99-0 in the Senate. A law that passes with no opposition is a good bet to be therapeutic legislation. (And it is doubly hypocritical for Republicans, who claim to believe in less government and in state government, to be clotting the federal statute books with laws that mess in areas of state concern.)

Many therapeutic laws are superfluous. Some are passed unanimously. But the defining characteristic of a therapeutic bill is its thrift: It doesn’t increase the budget; it requires no new taxes; and it offends no special-interest group. The anti-stalking bill cost Clinton and several hundred members of Congress absolutely nothing, but allowed them to inflate their anti-crime résumés.

A good third of Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention was used to publicize therapeutic laws passed on his watch or new ones he wanted Congress to consider:

He called for a ban on “cop-killer” bullets; reiterated his support for a victims’-rights constitutional amendment; argued for an extension of the Family and Medical Leave law and a measure to keep moms and their babies in hospitals longer than 48 hours; promoted a measure that would place taggents in explosives; and asked for a Brady Bill amendment to keep guns out of the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence.

He touted the television V-chip; praised the Kennedy-Kassebaum law (an ultra-therapeutic law that guarantees portability of insurance but places no ceiling on the rates insurers can charge); applauded the ban on “assault” rifles; and bragged about the new FDA regulations that curb the advertising and sale of cigarettes to children.

To much applause, he deplored the fact that “10 million children live within just four miles of a toxic waste dump” (four miles?) and urged that we make it illegal “even to attempt to pollute” (whatever that means).

C linton isn’t the only therapeutic politician, just the best. Linguistic nationalists are pushing their English-first measures. The ultrapatriotic want an amendment to ban flag-burning (hell, why not just mandate flag-waving?). The spit-and-polish crowd campaigns for school uniforms. The drug warriors seek more drug-free zones. To ward off child molesters, the city of San Mateo, Calif., has proposed background checks and fingerprinting of Little League coaches, den mothers, and others who volunteer their time to children (never mind, as the Wall Street Journal reports, that less than 10 percent of all child molestations take place in an institutional setting; that most accused child molesters have no previous convictions; and that child abuse is down in the ‘90s). And with the continued Balanced Budget Amendment follies, Congress indulges itself in the grandest of therapeutic fantasies. If it really wants to balance the budget it should just do so, rather than passing feel-good laws that say the budget should be balanced.

No doubt somewhere in the above list I’ve included a law that you, dear reader, support and believe is more than merely therapeutic. Your particular law, or two, address problems fully worthy of a national fuss and Rose Garden signing ceremony. But surely even you will agree that most of these laws are merely therapeutic. We can all agree on that, without agreeing on which are the exceptions.

Therapeutic laws become props for rhetoric that might be called demagoguery, except that it disgraces the memories of Joe McCarthy and Huey Long and the ambitions of Pat Buchanan to call Clinton a demagogue. The genuine demagogue assails minorities and labels his foes Communists. The modern “semigogue” speaks liltingly about children and education and health and public safety. He artfully constructs his debate to make his foes sound as if they are against children, for gun violence, against safe streets, and for pollution. The semigogue in chief has buried Dole with so many positives during this election season, it’s enough to make you long for the days of negative campaigning.

And for genuine activism. Even though my personal tastes in legislation tend toward the kind that begin, “Congress shall pass no law,” I admired the old Bill Clinton who attempted to reorganize the $1 trillion health-care business and who forthrightly called for a workfare program that would cost more, not less, than simple handouts. That Clinton didn’t pussyfoot around. He stood for what he believed in. He stimulated a thunderous and enlightening debate. He demonstrated to the electorate that real change is not cheap and easy.

He also got his ass kicked.