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Op-Ed

A Government Forecast

If there is a silver lining in the cloud of divided government, it is the opportunity for
government reform that resides in the bitterness. Every period of intense partisanship
and scandal in American history has been followed by a burst of good government
reform. Throw in hotly contested elections—such as those of 1800 (Jefferson vs.
Adams), 1948 (Truman vs. Dewey), 1976 (Carter vs. Ford), or 2000 (Bush vs. Gore)—and the odds of reform are even greater.

For inspiration, look at the Watergate scandal. Even before President Richard
Nixon resigned, Congress had begun building the deepest inventory of government
reform in 50 years. All told, Congress passed 30 major government reform laws
from 1974 to 1978, accounting for a fifth of the good government laws enacted
over the past half century. The onslaught began with 1974 amendments to the 1966
Freedom of Information Act and the 1971 Campaign Finance Reform Act and the
1976 Government in the Sunshine Act, and it ended with the 1978 Ethics in
Government and Civil Service Reform acts. Unable or unwilling to reach agreement
on big policy issues such as national health insurance, yet desperately wanting to
prove that they could do more than just bicker, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy
Carter found common ground with Congress in making government work.

Then, as now, good government was also good politics. Americans were convinced
that the federal government was hopelessly inefficient because that’s what
Democratic and Republican candidates told them in every election. At the same
time, Americans wanted more of virtually everything the federal government offered,
from bigger Social Security checks to better air traffic control. Convinced that the
federal government had the right priorities but the wrong bureaucracy, Americans
were inclined to support almost any effort to foster efficiency.

The question today is not whether good government is an idea whose time has come
again, but where to begin reforming. Congress and the President could easily spend
the next four years untangling a federal organization chart that would make Rube
Goldberg proud. Or, they could reform a financial management system that now
does a better job losing checks than tracking spending.

Nothing is more important, however, than fixing the campaign finance system and
renewing government service. The public service will never make a comeback
unless Congress and the President act to remove the persistent stain of soft money.
What better way for the nation’s leaders to rebuild public trust than by investing in
the core competence needed for more efficient government?

The campaign finance system definitely needs fixing. The 2000 presidential and
congressional campaigns set new records for money spent and rules bent.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, most House and Senate races
were won by the candidate who spent the most money. Democratic New Jersey
Senator-elect Jon Corzine obliterated the Senate spending record with a $60 million
contribution to himself. In all, the candidates with the most money won 403 of the
431 House races decided by Nov. 15.

The problem is not that money counts, but that unregulated money increasingly
counts most. The use of unregulated soft money is rampant, creating the perception
that big givers get big rewards. Unlike regulated hard money, which is subject to
legal limits, soft money has no caps as long as it goes for broadly defined “party—building activities.” Given the size of soft money contributions, such as the
hefty $1.1 million contributions from philanthropist Peter Buttenwieser and Slim Fast
founder S. Daniel Abraham in 2000, it is little wonder that Americans sense
corruption. The distrust associated with soft money affects interest in joining
government in two ways. First, it undermines public confidence in government.
Convinced that their leaders pay more attention to contributors than the national
good, many Americans steadfastly oppose the higher pay, debt relief and greater
flexibility needed for a government service that attracts people of high caliber. It is
hard enough to recruit public servants under the best of circumstances, let alone
when they are bathed in a shameful campaign finance system.

Author

But a new burst of campaign finance reform legislation can’t fix all that ails federal
service. Pick any level of government and it is hard to imagine a more frustrating or
time-consuming process for filling some of the most important jobs in the world than
the current system of making political appointments. The problems start at the top of
government, where the new administration will be lucky to have its Cabinet and
subcabinet in place by Halloween, and continue all the way down to the front lines,
where a decade of attrition-driven downsizing has eviscerated government and
created a vast middle-level bureaucracy clogged with needless management and
underused talent.

Mundane though it might seem, making government service attractive again would
reassure the public that government can work. Campaign and political appointment
reforms would produce a government more capable of honoring the long list of
promises both candidates made during the campaign. That would be a silver lining,
indeed.

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