On the Record

Is It Possible to Fix Government?

Thomas E. Mann

Thomas Mann joins Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, William W. Bradley of Allen & Company LLC, Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), Bob Edgar of Common Cause, Shirley Franklin of the City of Atlanta, Philip Howard of Common Good, Sally Katzen of the University of Michigan Law School, Steven Kelman of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Charles Kolb of the Committee for Economic Development, David Maloney of the State of Florida, Patricia McGinnis of the Council for Excellence in Government, David Osborne of The Public Strategies Group, and David Walker of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation to discuss whether it’s possible to fix the U.S. government.

Opening Statement:

Philip Howard:  Welcome to the inaugural discussion of NewTalk.org. Thanks especially to the very distinguished panel assembled here to discuss whether it’s possible to fix government.

I feel like we’re about to gather round a sick patient with a terrible malady, like doctors in a teaching hospital. Most Americans seem to think the case is hopeless. But we’re the hopeful ones (maybe), so let’s go at it.

The symptoms are well-known:

  1. Performance that gets poorer as we go from basic services to broader social needs, like healthcare;
  2. An unwillingness by Washington, almost pathologically, to face up to basic tradeoffs; and
  3. A void of accountability, except in the worst sense of “gotcha” for some moral or technical infraction.

I have my own hypotheses about the causes and cures, having to do with the fact that government is encased in legal concrete. Inertia, zealously guarded by special interests, is the m.o. of federal government.

But we have some of best and most experienced leaders here. What do you think, Mayor Bloomberg?

Michael R. Bloomberg: 
Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this discussion, Philip. This is my first time participating in an online discussion, but I can assure you I am not at home wearing my pajamas. This is a great group, the kind of crowd I’d enjoy having over for dinner. So I’m just going to pretend that we’re all sitting around a big table. I always learn something when I break bread with diverse groups of talented people, and I expect this conversation will be no different.

I don’t know that there’s a more important question hanging over this campaign than how we can fix our federal government, or at least get it in reasonably decent working condition. Philip began with the analogy of a sick patient, which seems apt. There are plenty of aspects of the disease, but one of them, at least as I see it, is addiction to partisanship. It consumes good and smart people and leads them to put politics ahead of progress. Any position can be rationalized to meet the needs of the party’s primary voters, campaign funders, and special interests. There’s a certain dishonesty and deception inherent in that, and it prevents conversations about the hard choices that need to be made to achieve real reform.

I understand that we’re not going to completely eliminate partisanship from Washington. But I don’t think we’re going to make real progress on the fundamental challenges we face—health care, global warming, education, and energy, to name a few—until we help more of those in Washington quit smoking the partisanship pipe.

Quitting any addiction takes guts and a willingness to reject peer pressure. And so my question to the group is: How do we help more candidates and elected officials acquire that courage? Our patient exhibits other harmful conditions that courage can help cure, including a deep-seated fear of innovation, accountability, and, as Philip mentioned, the trade-offs involved in hard decisions. So it seems to me to be a good place to start the conversation. Doctors?

Charles Kolb: 
Kudos to Philip Howard for launching New Talk and for providing yet another great service to the country.

Many government programs do not work because they lack proper incentives and the necessary accountability. The incentives are to get money out the door without really worrying about whether the programs are actually benefitting real people. Katrina cleanup is but one example.

The Mayor is correct about partisanship. One solution is to look at our entire reapportionment process—a process that leads to many “safe” congressional districts coupled with a tendency to promote candidates in both parties who pander to their ideological extremes. Moderates are therefore endangered and derided. We end up with a large number of noncompetitive races and more elected officials pandering to the extreme factions of their parties.

This situation makes compromises and governing from the center extremely difficult.

David Walker: 
After almost 10 years serving on the front line of government transformation and accountability as Comptroller General of the United States and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), I can say with confidence that the federal government needs a major overhaul. Don’t get me wrong, most public servants in government are highly educated and dedicated professionals who are committed to “the greater good.” At the same time, the government has become a bloated bureaucracy that is based on past conditions and in too many cases, federal programs and policies can’t demonstrate that they are generating real results that benefit the American people.

The truth is, today’s federal government is a far cry from what our Founders intended. It now comprises over 20 percent of the economy, up from about 2 percent at the outset of our republic. In fact, all of the major express and enumerated responsibilities for the federal government under the Constitution are contained in the 38 percent of the budget that is called “discretionary spending.” Can you believe that national defense, homeland security and the federal judicial system are among the items that are deemed to be “discretionary!” Over 62 percent of the budget is on autopilot and the health care portion of it is out of control. If we want our collective future to be better than our past, we need to get back to basics, start focusing on the future, and separate the programs and policies that work from the ones that don’t.

Philip Howard: 
We agree that there’s too much partisanship. Every president since Carter has vowed to end partisanship and clean out special interest influence. The situation has only gotten worse.

My question is whether partisanship is the disease or the symptom? All of us have tried to make things happen in Washington, and have run into a wall. I don’t think it’s because Washington is filled with aspiring Karl Roves and Lee Atwaters.

There are lots of good people in DC.

But the underlying structure makes it hard to change anything. They can’t even get rid of the farm subsidy.

This is a phenomenon that Tom Mann has studied extensively. The demands of the public for short-term gratification exacerbate the problem. But I believe leaders would emerge if we let them. At least in part, the polarized politics reflects the ossified structures. Unable to compete by accomplishing things, politicians resort to slash and burn partisanship.

For this reason as well, I agree with David Walker that it’s time for a major overhaul of government.


Thomas E. Mann:  Let us pause for a moment before reaching a conclusion that partisanship is the bane of good government. Political parties are essential institutions in every democracy in the world, for framing choices for the electorate, organizing politicians within government, and providing a mechanism for accountability. Nonpartisanship or bipartisanship is not demonstrably preferable to a strong and competitive party system. Our current problems stem from the ideological polarization of the parties at a time of rough parity between those parties. This has been long in the making and involves ordinary citizens as well as activists and politicians. Until we change the larger political environment in this country, we are unlikely to improve the performance of government. That is partly what is at stake in this election. Political leaders and energized electorates can make a difference. The problems we face are societal, not just governmental.

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