Why Democrats are scared of government reform
Big government has become the big issue on the campaign trail as Republicans look for ways of tying the sluggish economy to the Democrats. Yet, Democrats have yet to answer. Their rhetoric about fixing government is tepid at best, nonexistent at worst. They seem terrified to take on the drumbeat of Republican promises for hiring and pay freezes and wholesale dismantling of government agencies.
The Democratic leadership doesn't seem to realize that there is an answer in a package of comprehensive reforms. The Obama administration has provided some of the details in a long list of reforms that are moving forward at the Office of Management and Budget.
The ideas have received scant coverage, however, and are hardly the stuff of which campaign defense is made. Drafted by OMB's talented deputy director for management Jeff Zients, the ideas make perfect sense--a faster hiring process, more competition in contracting, "cloud computing" in yet another attempt to modernize the federal information system, occasional reorganization of failed agencies such as the Minerals Mining Service, and a dogs-breakfast of other ideas such as the SAVE award.
The proposals will no doubt improve government performance. The new OMB Director Jack Lew will no doubt continue the push. He's deeply commitment to raising government performance, and brings the resume to fit the job. Lew has worked the reform issue for years. He was in charge of the State Department's renewal effort, and is ready to take it to the next level once he is confirmed.
But if President Barack Obama cares about government reform, it doesn't show. He has yet to make a major speech on the issue, and has yet to get the forklifts out of the garage for the kind of Rose Garden ceremony that the Clinton administration used to launch Al Gore's reinventing government campaign.
It is well worth remembering that Gore's campaign was announced just weeks before the Clinton health care initiative was released. The administration's pollsters knew that the public would be more receptive toward health care reform if they had at least some confidence that government could be trusted to do the right thing once it passed.
So why don't Democrats talk more about comprehensive reform? Consider a half dozen quick answers.
First, Democrats don't know how to do it. Congress long ago lost the stomach for government reform. It is difficult to assemble, hard to explain, and has that "my-eyes-glaze-over" quality that tests even the most dedicated reformers such as Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).
Second, the depleted staffs at the two key drafting committees in Congress don't have the expertise to design a comprehensive package. For its part, the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee rarely turns to the systematic problems that have bedeviled the federal bureaucracy. In turn, the House Government Reform Committee hasn't produced a major package of reform since Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) and his staff moved out two years ago.
Third, Democrats are scared of the federal and state employee unions. They quickly dismantled the Defense Department's pay for performance system, which was poorly implemented and deserved an overhaul. But pay for performance deserves another look. There must be some way to do it well. Democrats should bring the unions in for a tough conversation about next steps.
Fourth, Democrats don't want to take on the lobbyists who exploit the byzantine government hierarchy at will. Cozy relationships are par for the course in the federal bureaucracy. Democrats could easily argue that the Bush administration gave the lobbyists free reign to dismantle federal capacity. The Bush administration wasn't called "the wrecking crew" for nothing.
Fifth, Democrats don't want to take on their own committees. Committees love government failure. It makes for good press, big-ticket campaign coverage, and strings of investigatory hearings. They rarely produce comprehensive legislation to fix anything, however, and don't have the capacity to do much more.
Moreover, they have been virtually silent regarding the sad condition of the General Accountability Office. It has been without a Comptroller General for three years now. The agency is still producing good work, but it needs a visible leader such as David Walker to get the reform issue back on track.
Sixth, Democrats don't want to spend money to make money. They rightly worry that any investments in productivity would just prompt more Republican complaints about tax-and-spend Democrats. Comprehensive reform will surely save money, but fixing administrative systems is expensive. Reform would save as much as $10 for every $1 invested, but the public doesn't believe it. As the Center for American Progress recently reported, Americans want more of virtually everything the federal government gives them, but they think government is hopelessly inefficient. They don't want to put anything in to fix it.
It is time for another run at the reform nonetheless. Democrats should not be afraid of the "P" word--performance is the key. They can't beat something with nothing. The Obama administration should also make comprehensive reform a top priority, and create an eye-popping package. The president could turn this around with one speech that might arm Democrats with a promise that would resonate with their constituents. The sooner the better.
Watch Charlene Li discuss Open Leadership in the 21st Century, and how companies from BP to Apple are changing the way corporations talk to their customers.
Read On Leadership's panel reactions to the NYC mosque controversy here
August 25, 2010; 9:23 AM ET |
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