Reform Is Not Enough: The Federal Government Needs a Complete Makeover

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Behavior that would seem grotesque to most Americans doesn't raise an eyebrow inside the Beltway. Only radical change can fix the problem.

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A deviant subculture is defined by sociologist Anthony Giddens as one "whose members have values which differ substantially from those of the majority in a society."

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

American government is a deviant subculture. Its leaders stand on soapboxes and polarize the public by pointing fingers while secretly doing the bidding of special interests. Many public employees plod through life with their noses in rule books, indifferent to the actual needs of the public and unaccountable to anyone. The professionals who interact with government -- lawyers and lobbyists -- make sure every issue is viewed through the blinders of a particular interest, not through the broader lens of the common good. Government is almost completely isolated from the public it supposedly serves. The one link that is essential for a functioning democracy -- identifiable officials who have responsibility to accomplish public goals -- is nowhere to be found. Who's in charge? It's hard to say. The bureaucracy is a kind of Moebius strip of passing the buck. The most powerful force in this subculture is inertia: Things happen a certain way because they happened that way yesterday. Programs are piled upon programs, without any effort at coherence; there are 82 separate federal programs, for example, for teacher training. Ancient subsidies from the New Deal are treated as sacred cows. The idea of setting priorities is anathema. Nothing can get taken away, because that would offend a special interest.

The institutions of democracy are dedicated to the status quo:

  • Congress has created rules that require herculean effort to make easy choices -- say, confirmation of officials -- and render meaningful change impossible. The filibuster rule assures stalemate in the Senate. Committee rules make it almost impossible to bring a new proposal to the floor of the House. Bright new people get elected and find themselves suffocated and powerless.

  • The Executive Branch operates in a dense jungle of accumulated law. The president can't approve a new power line or wind farm without a decade or so of environmental review. The president can't even appoint a committee to clean out the legal jungle without complying with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which is so laden with conditions on membership and public process that a meaningful recommendation is almost impossible. The Simpson-Bowles proposal, for example, didn't have a chance of approval by the appointed committee, so Simpson and Bowles just took it upon themselves to present their own proposal.

  • Special interests are not principals but agents, motivated not to solve problems but to "work them." Actually solving a problem would eliminate their jobs. An entire industry is built around the conflict between "pro-life" and "pro-choice" factions. The more polarization, the better off both sides are. The political parties each fill their campaign coffers by milking this conflict for all it's worth. Even if some pure-minded lobbyist wanted to solve a problem, the dynamics of special-interest groups would keep driving positions toward the lowest common denominator. Senior environmentalists have told me that it would be desirable to radically streamline environmental review to enable rebuilding of our country's power grid, but they could never join with industry to support such a speedy process, because their "base" would think they were selling out.

  • Democracy's goals have changed. Government is played as a game, not as a fiduciary responsibility to get things done. Running the country is not what political leaders mainly think about. They wake up every morning calculating how to beat the other party. You think this is too cynical? Hearings for completely unobjectionable judicial candidates are held up for years because of unrelated partisan bickering. A chief of staff for a Democratic senator once told me that a bill that perfectly reflected Democratic policy was rejected because it was introduced by a moderate Republican.

Insiders don't even pretend to be motivated by doing what's right. A few years ago, trying to solve the country's medical malpractice problem, I helped organize a large group of consumer groups, patient advocates, and health-care providers behind the idea of creating special health courts. The proposal enjoyed almost unanimous support from legitimate health-care constituencies, as well as broad editorial support. Polls showed that the public strongly supported it. We had bipartisan sponsors in both houses of Congress. All we needed was a pilot project to see how it would work. Who could object to that? Here is what I was told:

A leader of the Democratic caucus in the House said he understood why this was such a good idea. Then he asked, "How do the trial lawyers feel about it?" They hate it, I answered, because they feed off the unreliability of the current system, which consumes almost 60 percent of awards in lawyers' fees and administrative costs. "Then we can't support it," he replied. But whom do they represent, I asked -- AARP and leading patient groups are on our side. "It doesn't matter," he said frankly. "The trial lawyers give us the money."

I went to the White House and made my pitch about how great it would be for President George W. Bush to stand on the lawn with consumer groups and propose a legal reform that would actually be better for patients who were injured by mistakes, as well as for doctors unfairly accused. The senior staffer with whom I was talking understood the virtues of the proposal. But, he said in somewhat guarded language, "It's better for us to propose traditional tort reform capping damages." But that doesn't solve the problem of defensive medicine, I argued. "I understand that," he acknowledged, "but we benefit that way." What are the odds of traditional tort reform passing? I asked. "Oh, about one in 100," he answered. A junior staffer had to translate what was happening: The White House wanted to propose a reform it knew would fail so that Republicans could blame the Democrats for not solving the problem.

America should move the national capital. It wouldn't matter where, as long as government is run by new people not infected by the current culture. But if we can't, the only way to change the culture is to put public employees on the spot.

This behavior by high-ranking public servants should be considered scandalous. People in Washington consider it business as usual, and don't even raise an eyebrow.

Right and wrong no longer matter in this deviant subculture. Sealed off from personal responsibility by accumulated bureaucracy and thick walls of special interest money, our government is covered by a putrid mold of cynical gamesmanship and everyday hypocrisy. People scurry around its baseboards seeking short-term advantage, but big change is so inconceivable as to be laughable.

Even reformers have given up. What is politically feasible, they ask? The answer is clear: nothing.

Change will nonetheless happen, political scientists tell us. How? Through a crisis. (See my March essay "The U.S. Government Is Too Big to Succeed.") The main challenge then will be not merely to reform Medicare and other unsustainable programs. The challenge will be to change the culture of government.

Fixing democracy certainly requires toppling the walls of the status quo: constitutional amendments to reform campaign finance and to require programs to sunset every 15 or 20 years; empowering spring cleaning commissions to turn the junk pile of regulatory law into coherent codes; scrapping civil service as we know it, to end the presumption of lifetime careers and to revive public accountability; and eliminating the revolving door between Congress and K Street by banning lobbying for at least five years after public service.

Even all these changes, possible only in the desperation of a crisis, might not be enough to change a culture that is terminally cynical. Somehow we have to change how people in government behave. I had a fantasy in my last book that America should move the national capital. It wouldn't matter where, as long as government is run by new people not infected by the current culture. Almost no current public employees would be able to move to the new capital ... because they wouldn't be able to sell their homes. Just imagine it: a sea of "For Sale" signs up and down the streets of Georgetown and Chevy Chase, with no takers because there are soon to be no jobs. I ended this riff with Disney taking over Washington as a theme park and rehiring everyone to do just what they're doing now -- pretending to do something.

If we can't move the capital, the only way to change the culture is to put public employees on the spot. Today, with the exception of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, it's almost impossible to identify a government official who actually has responsibility to make choices. Democracy can never work until we bulldoze the current bureaucratic model and replace it with individual responsibility and accountability.

American culture is still strong, but our democracy is broken. It cannot be fixed by this reform or that. Its failure is now embedded in a subculture that is devoid of individual responsibility. Government needs a complete makeover -- not only new rules, but a transformation of how public choices get made. We'll never have a responsible government until identifiable people have the responsibility to get things done and can be fired if they don't.

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good. He is the author, most recently, of Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America, and wrote the introduction to Al Gore's Common Sense Government. More

Philip K. Howard is the author of Life Without Lawyers(Norton 2009), as well as the best-seller The Death of Common Sense(Random House, 1995) and The Collapse of the Common Good(Ballantine, 2002), and he is a periodic contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform issues, and wrote the introduction to Vice President Al Gore's book Common Sense Government. A practicing lawyer, Howard is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. In 2002, Howard founded Common Good (www.commongood.org), organized to restore common sense to American public life. The Advisory Board of Common Good is composed of leaders from a broad cross-section of American political thought including, among others, former Senators Howard Baker, Bill Bradley, George McGovern, and Alan Simpson. Howard is a civic leader in New York and is Chair-Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, a leading civic group that spearheaded initiatives to preserve Grand Central Terminal.
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