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`Niskanen Laws'

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YOU have heard of ``Murphy's Law'' and ``Parkinson's Law'' and the ``Peter Principle.'' I would like to introduce you to ``Niskanen Laws.'' These are not clever sayings or scholarly relationships -- but they are just as instructive. Niskanen Laws are laws passed by Congress when someone in the executive branch (until recently, Mr. Niskanen) asks a question that Congress doesn't want answered. William Niskanen, who recently left the Council of Economic Advisers for private life as chairman of the Cato Institute, was better known for his integrity and forthrightness than for his political savvy. For example, political pundits snickered when Mr. Niskanen called the comparable-worth doctrine a ``truly crazy idea.'' While his views were in line with most expert opinion on the subject, saying so was bad politics.

The pundits were wrong, though, about Mr. Niskanen's political effectiveness. He got some laws passed -- Niskanen Laws. I learned about the first one a few years ago as a member of a Cabinet council ``working group.'' Mr. Niskanen organized the group to look into rates charged for federally supplied power in the Tennessee Valley and the Northwest.

The inquiry made some important people uneasy. Many user groups, in both the public and private sectors, receive electric power at rates well below the value of the power. For example, the industrial rates of the Bonneville Power Administration (the biggest power supplier in the Pacific Northwest) had only recently doubled, to about 2.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, at a time when new plants were being built to produce power at around 5 cents a kwh. Our working group had just one meeting. Before the next one could be held, Congress had passed a budget amendment outlawing any further expenditures by the Council of Economic Advisers -- including staff time -- on this question. Congress made it illegal for the working group to meet to discuss this topic.


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