What a real 'pledge to America' would look like
Republicans launched yet another salvo against big government yesterday. Alongside the shopworn promise to reduce government duplication and overlap, the Republican "Pledge to America" vows to impose sunsets on all federal programs and a hard freeze on federal hiring in all but a handful of agencies.
Republicans clearly understand that Americans don't trust the federal government, but they have misread the underlying cause. Americans are not saying they want to slash government at all. They are saying: make government work. Americans want more of virtually everything the federal government delivers but are convinced the bureaucracy is rife with inefficiency. They want government to raise the bar on performance, not eviscerate the workforce or jettison programs that protect the public from the abuses that sparked the economic catastrophe in the first place.
Republicans are no doubt right that the private sector must take the lead in creating jobs. They are also right to criticize the duplication and overlap that the Obama administration has already put at the top of its management agenda.
But Republicans are wrong to think that sunsets and hiring freezes will do anything to improve government performance. To the contrary, the Pledge to America will almost certainly produce even more bureaucratic failures, particularly at the federal agencies that failed to protect Americans from counterfeit Heparin, tainted meat, Ponzi schemes, faulty brakes, broken bridges, toxic eggs and a host of other threats to public safety and confidence.
Democrats are hardly above reproach in these meltdowns. Republicans may have taken a rusty ax into the debate, but Democrats have either run from the problems or picked up tweezers for minute tinkering.
Neither party seems to understand that mistrust in government is the product of the federal government's cascade of highly visible failures. Americans may not fully understand the federal organization chart, but they know something is wrong. Bluntly put, Americans have come to doubt just about every promise that the federal government makes.
Alas, the federal government has given Americans plenty of reason to wonder whether it can do anything well. Some of the doubts are rooted in partisan conflict and a drumbeat of anti-government rhetoric, but most are rooted in the recent escalation of government failures. Each failure is soon replaced with another--bombing plots fade into brake recalls, which fade into mine disasters, which fade into oil spills, which fade into eggs. But the failures add up to doubts that linger for years, if not decades. In turn, those doubts create ample opportunity for electioneering by the minority party. Neither party is innocent. Democrats were just as agile in exploiting the government failures under George W. Bush as Republicans are in attacking the doubts under Barack Obama.
Republicans and Democrats must take a different approach. There is nothing more important in these times of great turbulence than the faithful execution of the laws. But the laws cannot be faithfully executed without the systems, workforce and resources to do the job. Republicans should know that it takes money to spend money wisely, while Democrats should admit that they have avoided the fundamental reforms that would put government on a safe, effective course.
The time for axes and tweezers is long past. Although there is much to admire in the Obama administration's growing list of management reforms, the president has not risen to the much larger challenge. He has yet to utter a sentence about the need for bureaucratic reform, and seems woefully disinterested in his constitutional role as administrator in chief.
Bureaucratic reform may not be the exciting issue in his briefing books (if it is in there all), but Obama has an obligation to act nonetheless. After all, Democrats built many of the agencies that are now struggling to perform. Just as Richard Nixon was the right president to open the dialogue with China, Obama may be the only president who can lead the desperately needed restructuring.
If Republicans want to change the laws, let them do so. But until the laws are changed, they should stand ready to join in a bipartisan effort to remove the bureaucratic obstacles to high performance. They should work together to eliminate the needless layers of management, eliminate the duplication and overlap, rebuild the front lines of government, measure and reward productivity rather than time on the job, and make performance count in the budget process. Republicans could claim credit for saving taxpayers billions in needless spending, while Democrats could accept accolades for improving performance.
It is a win/win proposition for both parties, but one that can only be achieved through a bipartisan approach to building a high-performance government. Obama should leave no doubt that he intends to do something significant. He should make a different pledge to America, and ask Republicans to work with him to make sure government can faithfully execute all the laws, not just the ones they like.
September 23, 2010; 7:36 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
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