A few days ago, a man named Mark Kellner called me from New York to discuss something I had written.
I don't have enough New York readers to be blase about such calls, so I asked how it happened that a resident of the Big Apple reads The Washington Post. Mark explained that he thinks several departments of our newspaper are the best of their kind in the country, and for that reason he pays 35 cents to buy a copy of The Post on his way to work every day.
Inevitably, our conversation turned to politics and he asked me whether liberals are likely to rally to John Anderson's candidacy. I said I couldn't hazard a guess, but if they did, some of them might be disappointed. Anderson's voting record has been rather conservative.
"For example?" The first thing that popped into my mind was the Youth Camp Safety Act. Anderson was against it. He didn't just vote against it, he appeared voluntarily at a hearing and testified against it. "Gee," Kellner said, "that's kind of surprising. I would have thought he would have been for it."
After we hung up, it occurred to me that the camping season is upon us. In a few days, parents all over the Washington area will begin shelling out huge sums of money to send their children to summer camps -- and some of those camps are notoriously unsafe.
So this might be a good moment to review the status of safety in youth camps. To do that, we can go back to the year 1967, when it was again brought to the attention of Congress that about 500,000 youths are injured at summer camps every year, and that there are also many deaths.
Only six states had any regulations at all governing the safety of youth camps, and no two of those six were alike. There were no standards of age or training for "counselors" or other camp personnel, and as a result children were being taken out into dangerous rapids in canoes, with resultant drownings, and children were being taken to the rifle range by 16-year-old "counselors" and instructors, and quite unsurprisingly they sometimes shot each other.
A few concerned members of the House and Senate tried to pass various forms of a Youth Camp Safety Act. It was proposed to make $2.5 million available to encourage states to pass their own camp safety laws, with federal standards prevailing only in those states that failed to act. Note that a $2.5 million expenditure amounts to about one penny per American.
If it seems reasonable to you that there should be safety standards for youth camps, be advised that many members of Congress do not agree. Some, like J. J. Pickle of Texas, work actively to kill or sidetrack the measure. In 1971, Pickle killed a Youth Camp Safety Act by getting a bill passed to spend $300,000 on a study aimed at finding out if there is a need for safety regulations in youth camps!
The findings of that study, if a study was ever completed, have been among the best-kept secrets in Washington. Meanwhile, 500,000 children continue to be injured in summer camps each year, and some of them die.
Foes of the Youth Camp Safety Act continue to accept hefty campaign contributions from the owners of privately operated youth camps and nursing homes who have one characteristic in common: both hate to be regulated. Even some of the holier-than-thou non-profit organizations don't like to be regulated, although children are injured and die in their camps, too.
While Anderson testified in 1977, Congress already had been studying the deaths and injuries for a decade. Anderson said he was opposed to pending bills because they provided for federal enforcement of safety standards in those states that fail to set up their own standards within a year.
Anderson said, "I, for one, do not consider this a legitimate or necessary area for federal regulation and enforcement. I think federal enforcement of youth camp safety standards would be an unwarranted intrusion on the police powers reserved to the states under our constitutional system of federalism. I do not think it will suffice to argue that federal preemption of these powers is necessary because only a few states have meaningful youth camp safety laws and programs."
I hate to disillusion Mark Kellner, who is probably 50 percent of my New York readership, but if he's looking for a liberal champion of the little guy in 1980, he may have trouble finding a candidate to his liking. POSTSCRIPT
Although I had heard Anderson's powerful testimony in opposition to the Youth Camp Safety Act in 1977, before writing this column I asked his office for a text of that testimony to make sure my memory had not betrayed me. I also asked whether Anderson's position had changed subsequent to his testimony.
A month passed. There was no reply. I obtained the text elsewhere.