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

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


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."

Presented by

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author, and the chair of Common Good. He most recent book is The Rule of Nobody.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In