The silver lining in a partisan hurricane
Democrats are reeling these days as they confront an electoral disaster. They have been easily branded as the protectors of big, bad government--and at a time when Republicans have turned the election into a referendum on the federal bureaucracy.
But the truth is, neither party has done much to push for bureaucratic reform. Republicans have yet to advance an ambitious agenda for making government work, and have been studiously silent about cuts in the big-ticket deficit drivers embedded in Social Security, Medicare and the 2001 tax cuts. Their briefly advertised pledge to America has disappeared from the political landscape, leaving federal pay and hiring freezes as their only hammer.
At the same time, Democrats have yet to embrace an alternative. They seem unwilling to tell the public that pay and hiring freezes would further degrade government's ability to inspect oil rigs, police food and drugs, collect and sort intelligence, curb the greed on Wall Street and restore a semblance of public confidence in the faithful execution of laws. They have also been unable to admit that the federal bureaucracy can do better. They are in a defensive crouch, with almost nothing to say about big-ticket bureaucratic reforms that might actually help the federal government work more effectively.
This dismal election season may yet produce a silver lining, however. If Republicans retake the House, they will be under enormous pressure to offer something more substantial than a trivial cut in federal pay and headcount. Democrats will have similar incentives to do something more than offer double-sided copying as their lead bureaucratic reform. Both parties might just have to find a bipartisan answer to the big-government question.
The answer will not be found in shrinking the federal workforce or trimming pay, though there is good reason to move resources from the top of the bureaucracy down to the bottom, which has been decimated over the past 20 years. Rather, the answer lies in a sustained effort to make the federal bureaucracy into a much more accountable, productive and efficient agent for delivering the goods and services most Americans say they want.
It has now been 60 years since the last significant campaign to address the cumbersome systems and structures that inhibit high-performance government. The effort was led by none other than then-former Republican president Herbert Hoover and his blue-ribbon Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government. Although Hoover is best remembered by most Americans for his deer-in-headlights response as the Great Depression took hold, he was actually a master public administrator. His real passion later in life was making government work better, which he most certainly did.
Hoover was called to the task by the Republican Congress that created the commission and the Democratic president who appointed it. Having battled one partisan stalemate after another as the Cold War began, both parties came together in common cause. Both understood that government was broken, and they actually found a moment for bipartisan action. Although the effort was steeped initially in partisanship, courageous leaders from both parties acknowledged that something had to be done to restore public confidence in government.
It is not too late for Democrats and Republicans to make the same commitment again. Obama may be bored to tears by bureaucracy, but surely he must understand that his party's impending doom stems in part from the cascade of doubts created by recent meltdowns. And Republicans may be feasting on anti-government sentiment, but surely they must understand the public's demand for better performance.
President Jimmy Carter had it right in 1976 when he promised a government as good as the people, but Democrats and Republicans alike seem to forget the power of his promise. If it was good enough to take a peanut farmer to the White House, perhaps it could be good enough to energize a bipartisan effort to actually do something big about big government.
The first President Bush seems to be the logical choice for the job. Let the new Republican House create the commission, then let Obama call Bush to the task. There will be plenty of opportunities for partisan bickering in the coming two years regardless of who wins in November, but making government work could be a crowning achievement for both parties and a very real gift to the American people. Obama just might close the enthusiasm gap his own party is experiencing by making the proposal and daring Republicans to say "yes."
October 21, 2010; 1:32 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
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