During this transitional period, Washington is more than customarily absorbed with who is in, out, up, or down. The grim White House announcements about pending “shake-ups” prompted a kind of gallows humor. Some Nixon Administration officials decided early to seek higher rewards in the private sector, where they would receive remuneration for their continuing contacts with power. On the day after the election, the United Aircraft Corporation, a major government contractor, announced that Clark MacGregor, the director of the President’s reelection campaign, would join them, stating that MacGregor’s “wide experience and knowledge will enable him to play an important catalytic role in our efforts to improve the working environment between business and government.”

Well before the election was over, Democrats and Republicans began to position themselves for 1976. There is no time out now in the struggle for power. The media feature stories about the prospects of Agnew, Percy, Connally, Kennedy, Mondale. Invitations to Edward Kennedy’s house in McLean, Virginia, are accorded the same mystery and significance that once attached to those to Robert Kennedy’s home at Hickory Hill years ago.

It is also a time of transition of another sort: from the issues of the 1960s to those of the 1970s. (The sixties may have ended a while ago, but transitions take time.) Most of this has nothing at all to do with election-year politics. Many of the issues would be with us no matter what had happened in November.

The disarray of the liberalism of the 1960s, for example, would not have been resolved by the coming to power in 1972 of one of its champions. It was, in fact, the private nightmare of some thoughtful Democrats that if they were to win, the intellectual fatigue of liberalism might be disastrously exposed. Even if President Nixon had not raised the issue, it would now be time for a reexamination of federal programs. The President’s aggressive postelection assault on “throwing dollars at problems” and “bloated” Washington bureaucracies sharpened the issues and gave them a political cast. But assumptions about federal responsibilities and how those responsibilities should be carried out were already being reconsidered on several sides. Even many proponents of the federal programs of the 1960s have come to see their problems, limitations, and failures. But those who believe in these programs have not reached anything approaching a consensus on a substitute. They are divided and on the defensive.

Feeding people

The story of the hunger program is an almost classic case study of 1960s liberalism, of good intentions colliding with erroneous assumptions, clumsy implementation, and political reality. In the mid-1960s, it may be remembered, a fact that had been around for some time was discovered: millions of Americans were not getting enough to eat because they were too poor. It was a problem fairly simple to comprehend, easy to arouse outrage over, and seemingly not very difficult to resolve. Liberal activists dramatized it, liberal politicians seized upon it and, with the cooperation of the press, transformed it into a National Issue. Reports were written, hearings were held, a television documentary was produced, conferences were convened, and legislation was enacted. Typical of the legislation of the period, it authorized the spending of money, spelled out a series of standards and procedures, and directed a government agency (the Department of Agriculture) to see that the poor received an adequate diet. The Department hired a number of people who wrote a set of complex guidelines and implemented the food programs. One of the programs provided free surplus commodities, the other provided food stamps which could be purchased and then exchanged for food worth more than the cost of the stamps. Federal spending to feed poor people expanded sixfold, and a great many people did in fact receive food assistance. It appeared to be one of the liberals’ most significant achievements.

Yet it turned out to be harder than anticipated to “target” the hungry and induce them to apply for or utilize the assistance. The Citizens’ Board of Inquiry, a selfappointed group that had brought the problem to national attention, recently issued a report which said that almost half of the nation’s poor still were not receiving food assistance. The programs were too complex in design, and, it said, whatever achievements there had been had required “the most bitter and exhausting kind of bureaucratic infighting.” The Citizens’ Board concluded that the hunger programs should be abandoned, and that instead the poor should be given assistance in the form of cash. The case of the hunger programs, says John Kramer of the National Council on Hunger and Nutrition, is “almost a classic situation of a liberal triumph that failed.”

Since cash assistance — or what might be called “money stamps”—is increasingly considered as an alternative to various forms of federal aid, the obstacles confronting transformation of even the food programs are worth noting. For one thing, the programs that would be replaced by cash assistance have adherents who are fighting for their continuation. The bureaucracy which administers the food programs has developed a proprietary interest in them. Farm groups find the programs a useful vehicle for unloading surpluses, and grocery stores find them a source of additional sales. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is a strong supporter of the food stamp program. Quite aside from these vested interests in the existing programs, the concept of cash assistance to the poor, substantial enough to make a real difference in their lives, is not— at present—politically feasible.

Faith and worship

The major themes of the hunger story are repeated in the histories of several of the other programs that were constructed during the 1960s. First, many of the programs were designed in cooperation with those who provided the services—nurses, college administrators, teachers—and a major impetus behind the programs’ perpetuation now is the efforts of these groups to protect their self-interest. Second, problems were oversimplified and approached with a kind of easy optimism. Isolated successes were seized upon and transformed into national programs before it had been determined what, if anything, they proved. This is what former Budget Director Charles Schultze calls our “Reader’s Digest syndrome,” our worship of success stories and our faith that they can be replicated. Third, in the interest of seeing that the money was spent for the intended purposes, the power to make an infinite number of detailed decisions was vested in a remote bureaucracy in Washington.

In the Model Cities program, the Johnson Administration attempted to induce cities to revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods by the coherent use of federal programs. Cities which produced plans involving the coordinated use of federal funds for schools and hospitals and housing and so on would receive a federal bonus. It was a polite and sophisticated method of bribing cities to do what the federal planners believed to be in the cities’ interest. Now even the program’s designers believe that it was too ambitious, and that it overestimated the capacities of the city officials to produce the plans and of the federal officials to supervise, coordinate, and implement them. Yet the program remained alive, largely through the efforts of the bureaucracy that administers it and the group—particularly the mayors— which benefits from it. Even people who believe strongly in federal responsibility to provide citizens with adequate homes have deep misgivings about other housing programs. They now feel that many of them are misconceived, too expensive, prone to scandal, and of more benefit to the middle class, builders and bankers, than to the poor for whom they were designed.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 posited that the provision of federal funds for improving the education of poor children would in fact improve their education, and that this would be equitable for the children and beneficial to the nation. This particular approach was also seen as a way through other controversial issues surrounding the general idea of federal aid to education, issues of control, of cost, and of aid to private schools. Yet much of the money was spent on audiovisual equipment and other gimcracks that made no noticeable contribution toward learning. Studies have produced little evidence that the money significantly improves the quality of the children’s education. And now questions have been raised about the value of classroom education under any circumstances. What has come to be known as the “educational establishment,” however— school administrators and teachers— favors the program.

Long second thoughts about the programs of the 1960s have to be balanced against some other facts. Fewer people are going hungry; more people have better housing and health care; some children are going to better schools; more people are getting a college education; more of the handicapped are being trained for jobs; the air and water are cleaner; many products we buy are safer or more honestly labeled. The list could go on. Moreover, programs of this sort were begun at the federal level because state and local governments, left to their own devices, would not or could not act. A certain amount of waste and corruption will surround any substantial governmental enterprise. The building of the nation’s railroads was marked by scandal too. Human nature and varieties of human experience present inevitable problems when regulating or establishing conditions to reach a desired end. Yet without governmental regulations or conditions, the end might not be reached. We have to face the consequences of our choices. Would we prefer a dirty river or a guideline? Railing at bureaucracies or at waste or at disappointing results begs these points.

Bad bind

Even so, the liberals who continue to believe in the domestic programs of the 1960s are in a bad bind. There is ample evidence that the country is tired of their approach. It can be argued that we are at a historical point that was bound to come, that successive waves of optimism, energy, fatigue, and disillusionment are inevitable in the life of a nation. Moreover, politicians adept at detecting what is bothering people have played to the mood. When George Wallace, over four years ago. focused his attack against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” who did not know how to “park their bicycles straight,” he spoke to more than just antipathy to busing. The thread of race ran through most of the new federal programs of the 1960s, since so many of them were designed explicitly to help the poor, and so many of the poor are black. But Wallace wasn’t referring only to color and class tensions. He was on to an incipient national desire to get the social planners, with their big ideas and their big taxes, off people’s backs. In a pre-election telecast this year, President Nixon addressed himself to the antibureaucratic mood in explicit terms. He spoke of “the goals of a free people, in a free nation, a nation that lives not by handout, not by dependence on others or in hostage to the whims of others, but proud and independent. . . . That is why I want us to turn away&emdashfrom a demeaning, demoralizing dependence on someone else to make our decisions and to guide the course of our lives.”

The liberals face not only Richard Nixon to the right of them but on the left some who seek more radical change. Some of those who support substantial transfers of income from the wealthy to the poor believe that the liberalism of the 1960s amounted to mere tinkering with the status quo, and must be discredited. Christopher Jencks, in his recent book Inequality, argues that “as long as egalitarians assume that public policy cannot contribute to economic equality directly but must proceed by ingenious manipulations of marginal institutions like the schools, progress will remain glacial. ... If we want to move beyond this tradition,” he writes, “we will have to establish political control over the economic institutions that shape our society. This is what other countries usually call socialism. Anything less will end in the same disappointment as the reforms of the 1960s.” Jencks’s book is likely to have extensive political reverberations; it will probably be cited by both those who want the government to do more and those who want it to do less. Traditionally, socialism has meant government ownership and administration of the means of production, but of late the term has also been applied to sizable transfers of income. To a greater degree than has been true for some time, largely as a result of disappointment with the 1960s, variations on the theme of socialism are in the air.

Liberals are thus presented with some strategic dilemmas. Indiscriminate requests for more money for their programs will not work. They will have to select their fights, figuring out which ventures are most worth continuing. This may require a harmonizing of views, and liberals often seem almost congenitally incapable of harmonizing. They will have to argue for that rarest of American commodities: patience. Most of the programs were begun in the late 1960s and have not had very much time to work or to produce even measurable results. Nevertheless, the programs’ proponents will have to accept, even invite, closer scrutiny of whether the programs are meeting or are within sight of their intended goals. Painful though it may be for liberals. President Nixon will not be entirely wrong when he says, as he will, that the programs are not returning full value for the dollar, and that they are being protected by the “special interests” and the “bureaucrats.”

The drawing board

Other strategies are beginning to emerge. Some proponents of increased federal activities see a way out of their current bind through regrouping and redefining the issue. There is a belief that if problems are put in terms of the rights and needs of children, solutions may be more acceptable politically. The Brookings Institution in Washington, which houses a number of architects of the Great Society, is reexamining the very premise that things get done if the government requires that they be done, and spends money on them. They are searching for alternatives and trying to sort out what the government does well and what it does poorly. They are examining other methods—such as financial incentives—for creating jobs, holding down medical costs, reducing pollution. Some are beginning to perceive the need for hard thinking about the “unit costs” of providing services such as higher education and health care. In the atmosphere of the 1960s, when money seemed to be abundant, it was easy to avoid thinking about such dreary practicalities. The professionals considered studying the cutting of costs to be beneath them. The bureaucrats were seeing to it that the money got spent, so as to be able to go back to the Congress each year to ask for more. But even then the designers of the Great Society feared that there was a surfeit of programs, and they tried, over the howls of the interest groups and their bureaucratic and congressional friends, to combine several in a given area, such as health, into a single, more flexible program. President Nixon is continuing to try this approach under the title of “special revenue sharing.”

The idea that “money stamps” should supplant food stamps has its counterparts in the areas of housing and education. It has been suggested that the poor be given allowances with which to secure their own housing, or vouchers with which parents could “pay” for the education of their children at a school of their choice. These proposals are surrounded by controversy. They stir heated arguments over whether there would be sufficient supplies of the housing or schools to provide real choices; whether the poor would be capable of making wise selections; whether other social services would still be needed. The proposals do not resolve the difficult question of what, if anything, is to be done about segregation by race and class.

The idea of income support, money given directly to the poor but not specifically earmarked for food or housing or schools, is gaining adherents. Senator George McGovern’s somewhat misconceived and quite misunderstood income maintenance plan will probably seem modest by comparison with others that will be proposed in the future. But income maintenance plans raise several of the same issues as do the proposals for allowances for specified purposes. Moreover, if it were to be found that the poor did not spend the money in a manner which the middle class believed suitable, income maintenance might also end in political disaster. But the central problem with income maintenance proposals now is that they are very, very expensive. This is particularly true if the plans are to help the working poor, which w’ould be required on grounds of both equity and politics. In the current political climate, expensive programs that would transfer income front the middle and upper to the lower classes simply are not acceptable. The politics and economics of class as practiced over the last few years have in fact increased the income gap between rich and poor.


The choices that have to be faced are difficult, particularly when there is so little consensus about what to do. So many conflicting ideas attended the drafting of the revenue sharing legislation this past year that the final bill was several inches thick. Shortly after revenue sharing legislation was enacted, moreover, the New York Times found that the new money was to be used by several localities for purposes not really intended: for the lowering of taxes, for building city halls and tennis courts. The President’s welfare bill failed to find a path between the conservative doctrine that welfare recipients should be made to work and the liberal belief that they should be given more money. In the end, the Administration abandoned it. Those liberal advisers who came to Washington with the President in 1969 have long ago departed the White House, and now the President’s own conservative instincts on domestic issues have no doubt been fortified by his electoral victory. And Presidents have a substantial advantage in defining the terms of an argument.

While the disposition of the unfinished agenda of the 1960s is being thrashed out, two other sets of issues will come on line. One of them has to do with the ways in which national questions are decided. Gradually the connections between the procedures by which our national affairs are handled and the substantive results are becoming better understood. Whether or not substantial change will actually result, we are headed for another period—the last one was over a half century ago—in which issues of political and procedural reform will be on the agenda.

These issues include the cost of campaign financing, and the amount of secrecy with which the Congress and the executive branch proceed. Senator Lawton Chiles, Democrat of Florida, was formerly one of that state’s legislators who, in 1967, put through a law called the “Government-in-the-Sunshine Act,” requiring all meetings of state governmental bodies to be open to the public. Chiles has now introduced a bill in Congress to apply the same principle to the federal government.

There will be attempts to reassert the authority of the Congress in decisions concerning both domestic and foreign policy. There was an inconclusive struggle at the close of the last session between several senators and the Nixon Administration over the power of the executive branch to make agreements with foreign nations without the approval of Congress. While the Senate is given the opportunity to ratify treaties dealing with such matters as the setting of postal rates or the importation of antiquities, most of our overseas military arrangements are made by executive decisions which do not require approval of the Congress, and of which Congress is often unaware. The senators seized upon a request for increased aid to Portugal in exchange for Portugal’s permission for the United States to use the Azores as a military base to demand that such agreements be submitted to the Congress. The Administration was opposed, and the foreign aid bill died.


The near surrender by the Congress, also at the end of its last session, of major powers over appropriations stemmed from its own ineptitude in dealing with the national budget. It handed the President a situation easy to exploit. The Congress votes the expenditure of federal funds on a piecework basis, with no mechanism for considering trade-offs, or the overall effect of the annual outlay. Its staff work here, as in other areas, is primitive. Some members of Congress are now considering ways to improve their manner of dealing with the power of the purse, lest they lose it irrevocably. They are seeking ways for the Congress both to get more information from the executive branch and to overcome its inability to proceed with coherence.

The other set of issues coming up puts substantive questions in new contexts. One thoughtful Senate staff member, William Miller, has written a paper suggesting that local school districts be made the basic units of government. Under the plan, the federal government would do what it does best: set general standards. But the central government would, where possible, leave the planning to the local unit. Miller has engaged the interest of Senator Charles Mathias, Republican of Maryland, who is planning to introduce legislation incorporating the idea. He proposes that it be tried on a pilot basis, in connection with the 1976 bicentennial, a time that might be marked by something more significant than red-white-and-blue cupcakes. If a higher unit of government-city, state, or federal—sought to build a road, or a mass transit system, through the local unit, it would have to show compelling reasons, and the issue would be subject to arbitration. Units could combine to support such expensive institutions as hospitals or community colleges.

Small republics?

In the early days of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson addressed the question of how to provide people with a government that left them control over their lives, and offered a model. Jefferson suggested that counties be broken down into wards. “Each ward,” he wrote, “would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well-administered republic.” Jefferson’s proposal was defeated by the landed interests of Virginia, who feared it would lead to increased taxes to finance public endeavors. There are undoubtedly various contemporary interest groups, particularly those which flourish through their connections with state legislatures and influence on national policies, which would oppose the modern version of his proposal. The idea needs more work. Yet it represents an attempt, which must be made, to confront the dilemma of how to attain national goals and meet the desire of the people to be involved.

The dilemmas of planning run throughout many of the primary issues of the 1970s. They affect questions of land use, of urban development versus rural development, of how best to utilize dwindling resources of economic growth. There is the issue of conversion of defense and space industries to other pursuits. According to one congressional staff estimate, there are now thirteen people working on this question throughout the government; more bureaucrats, it is estimated, concern themselves with the study of bees. Arcane but critical questions about this country’s financial relationships with other nations, its balance of payments, still must be resolved. There is a need for a redefinition of our foreign policy now that the cold war and dominoes are no longer with us—to redefine our interests, our commitments, our activities and presence in other nations.

This is a time of transition, in short, when a great deal of wisdom is needed, more than seems to be at hand. Few solutions have been found in the last decade, but perhaps at least the questions are getting better.