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Government Reform: Business unusual in Washington

House Republicans softened their rhetoric about President Barack Obama's "job killing" health-care reform this week, but don't expect kinder, gentler language to stick around when government reform hits the floor in the next month or two. The rhetoric is already hot, the anger intense and the proposals destructive.

Republicans should take a different approach. Another round of bureaucrat bashing will not only deepen the public's anger toward Washington and set the stage for a bitter election season next year, it will squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a comprehensive government overhaul. Search as one might, there is no better issue on the agenda for showing Americans that business is anything but usual in Washington.

Finding this comity will not be easy. Having opened an 11 percentage point lead over Democrats as the party Americans think can best manage the size and power of the federal government, Republicans have ample reason to exploit the issue as the 2012 campaigns begin. They have called the federal government every name in the book over the past three months, and are ready to introduce a sweeping mash-up of cuts, freezes, caps and furloughs for federal workers.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to cower at the onslaught of anti-government rhetoric. Except for a handful of progressives such as Virginia's Sen. Mark Warner, they have nothing to say about making government work. Either they are ready to acquiesce when the House wields its blunt ax, or they simply don't have the brainpower or courage to present their own plan.

And then there's Obama, who also remains reluctant to engage the debate on higher ground. After two years in office, he still can't muster the energy to call Al Gore for a tutorial on how his reinventing government campaign made Democrats the favorite party for managing the size and power government by the end of the 1990s.

Gore gave President Bill Clinton all the ammunition he needed to claim in his 1995 State of the Union address that the era of big government was over. Now, his claim wasn't quite true--most of the job cuts were simply the result of the Defense Department's downsizing that followed the end of the Cold War. But Clinton's rhetoric helped energize the Democratic rebound from the disastrous 1994 midterm elections nonetheless. It could be deja vu all over again--if only the Democrats could remember.

Instead of watching angry Republicans take a blunt ax to the complex problem that Washington Post columnist George Will highlighted this week, the public should demand that the two parties work together to forge a more accountable, effective and productive government.

The accountability would come from fewer political appointees, tighter chains of command and deep cuts in the needless management layers that explain so many of the recent government failures.

The effectiveness would come from an attack on persistent duplication and overlap, the elimination of hopelessly unworkable programs and an injection of needed workers on the front lines of government.

And the productivity would come from more rigorous performance measurement, an end to the automatic pay increases and promotions that bedevil high performance, and from more disciplined purchasing.

The question is whether Democrats and Republicans can find the courage to act in concert.

The answer is that they did just that last year when they reformed the corrupt Minerals Mining Service, modernized the food safety system and revitalized the sagging Government Performance and Results Act.

They also did so in 1994 when they created chief information officers in every federal agency, streamlined the federal acquisition laws and regulatory process, and gave the Clinton Administration a green light on reinventing government. In1970 they did so as well, when they approved the creation of the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency.

And most importantly, they did it in 1947 when they created the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government. Led by former president Herbert Hoover, the commission produced 273 recommendations for streamlining government. The debate leading to the commission was tough but civil. Democrats and Republicans stood together in acknowledging the need for reform. They also stood together in giving the president authority to act--approving plans that remade the federal organization chart and imposing new disciplines on federal spending. And they did it all under divided government.

The federal government desperately needs the same kind of overhaul today. But it cannot be done with a heavy dose of angry rhetoric. Just as Americans want an end to business-as-usual in politics, they also want the federal government to do its job at the lowest cost and highest efficiency. Americans have been watching government rust for 60 years now. It is time for Democrats and Republicans to drop the gloves and start drafting big-ticket reform. It would be business-unusual for a change.

By Paul Light

 |  January 21, 2011; 4:42 PM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Change management , Federal government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Time to give GAO a big job | Next: Obama finally says 'reorganize', now the hard part


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Republicans claimed that the Bush regime would be smaller government when it began, but it grew like mold in a lab dish. The fact is that politicians thrive on what they have the power to do and making anything small is not in their lexicon. By their nature, they MUST bring home the prize (money) and they must be noticed on a regular basis. It is part of the animal known as the politician. The likelihood that Republicans will make government smaller in the new Congress is dim. They might trim something here or there, but the end result will be window dressing on the debt reduction side. Giving away tax cuts requires spending cuts or other "revenues" and there are no Republicans capable of doing that or willing to stop giving away tax cuts. It seems that they never go to Government 101 on how to fund the very organization they profess to be running.

Posted by: ronjeske | January 26, 2011 9:34 AM

Our chief problem lies in the legislative, not the executive branch. A Congress with not enough interest in undoing the legalized bribery and plutocratic system that pushes private ahead of public interests. Attacking the bureaucracy is a time honored tool of distraction in the shell game ( A fraud or deception perpetrated by shifting conspicuous things to hide something else).
So sure, streamline the government, but only if you can still keep your eye on the pea and the nutshells.

Posted by: steveandjanereed1 | January 23, 2011 11:07 AM

Oh, my we Democrats are cowering because of the Republicons insufferable diatribe. It may be best for America to have Republicons totally in control of the government. That way when all of the poor and middle class finally figure out that they have been screwed by the Republicons we can have that revolution that all the Tea Party folks promote. Only it will be the progressive moderates that will revolt. This is one more article that supports the Republicon starve the beast process that started with Reagan. So once the whole government collapses what is going to happen. I am all for it, I want to go up to every "independent" that voted Republicon and thank them for being personally responsible for the economic and social breakdown that is coming with Republicons.

Posted by: deminfla1 | January 22, 2011 6:13 PM

Who was it who said to a Republican in a debate "if you hate government so much, why are you working so hard to be in it"?

The answer is....Republicans, many of them, only hate government if it benefits the rest of us. They love government if it benefits their constituency. You know...the rich, big business and themselves .. all the usual suspects.

For Repubs, government is about power NOT public service.

Posted by: celested91 | January 22, 2011 7:13 AM

Companies will be barred from instituting caps on coverage when your costs for treatments goes up due to sickness, you can now get insurance with out caps on coverage at "Wise Health Insurance" search them online.

Posted by: carriemann | January 22, 2011 6:00 AM

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