WASHINGTON - Inundated with Census Bureau forms and IRS forms, Americans are getting an unusually large dose of Big Brotherism this spring.
They don't like it.
The forms have hit mailboxes at the same time the Waco tragedy has come under renewed scrutiny, at the same time Congress is under enormous pressure to restrict gun ownership, at the same time the government has vowed a new war on tobacco, at the same time the Environmental Protection Agency is flexing muscles in ways that could cut some jobs.
And this is all making some government bureaucrats nervous. What if thousands of Americans just start saying, "No way" ?
Democrats sense the budding rebellion in the vitriolic comments to radio talk shows about census forms, which, by their nature, probe into just about every aspect of life - how much you earn, how much your teenager earns, how many bathrooms you have, whether your sex partner is married to you or just living with you.
Republicans sense it in the nascent backlash over gun control. The National Rifle Association - once again on the public radar, this time because of personal attacks on President Clinton - says its membership is booming even as it fights to prevent a 72-hour background check for buyers at gun shows, mandatory trigger locks, and restrictions on large ammo clips.
The spring season seems to cause anti-government sentiment to well up in many - sometimes, as in Oklahoma City, with catastrophic results. And sometimes, as is the case so far this year, with coast-to-coast grumbling.
There's also a whiff of unease about the economy. People who have come to think of the inflated worth of their stocks as real money are watching those paper profits melt away or gyrate dizzyingly. People fear that no matter what they do, it won't be the right thing and that makes them grumpy.
Census officials are the most worried. The Constitution requires the census every 10 years, and it is invaluable for distributing taxpayer dollars to states and localities, for political apportionment, for helping business leaders decide what trends to follow, for helping decide what bridges get built.
The Census Bureau has 27,000 offices to help people answer their questionnaires. The forms are available in 49 languages. There is a tremendous paid advertising campaign and promotional effort to try to make people realize they should fill out the forms and to force them to realize it's a legal responsibility.
Census officials pledge confidentiality on all information collected. But in an era where supersensitive FBI files were casually stored in White House file cabinets, and when the head of Customs complains that his computers are so abysmally old they're worthless, and when presidential candidates' SAT scores are common knowledge - confidence in government secrecy is not what it once was. Despite double encryption to guard against spying on secret data, the Census Bureau expects only 7 million out of 115 million households to file their Census forms electronically via the Internet.
Rep. Nick Smith, a Michigan Republican, says he is going to introduce a bill to reduce the $100 fine for refusing to answer all the questions on the long census form, which goes to one out of six households. He wants to make it a $10 fine.
Mr. Smith says the bureaucrats are being busybodies and have no need to know how many rooms in a house, when it was built, where water and utilities come from and how much they cost, how much the house cost, the number of cars, telephones, and bathrooms, how much insurance is carried, what time people leave for work and how they get there, their health, and what they do all day.
"This is simply excessive, and my legislation will make it easier for people to avoid answering these intrusive questions," he said.
Mr. Smith seems to have forgotten that all members of Congress were notified months ago what questions would be asked and that there are fewer questions now than in 1990. The data needed from the forms was decided by Congress. And the truth is, nobody is prosecuted for not answering Census forms. Mr. Smith's bill is a nonstarter.
As for the IRS, a number of lawmakers are also vigorously promising constituents that they will get rid of the Internal Revenue Service. Yeah, right.
We might as well face it. These things, like dandelions and pollen and the guck that coats cars, are a rite of spring.
And the bureaucrats themselves have to fill out the forms and send in their tax returns and do all the stuff they make the rest of us do.
Misery loves company.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau.
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