As the presidential candidates go at it over the next several months, we’ll be hearing a lot about what the federal government ought to be doing. Unfortunately, we’ll likely hear next to nothing about how it should go about it. The need to reform how the federal government operates ought to be high on the campaign agenda every four years. Instead, it rarely gets mentioned.
Politically, this is puzzling. According to the polls, public trust in the government’s capacity to solve the problems facing the country has hit record lows. Late last year, Gallup found that Americans believe the federal government wastes over half of every dollar it spends — compared to the 40 cents of every dollar they complained about when the question was first asked in 1979. A 2010 poll for the Center for American Progress found that Americans are “extremely receptive to reform efforts that would eliminate inefficient government programs, implement performance-based policy decisions, and adopt modern management methods and information technologies.” Yet candidates don’t seem to believe that reform has much appeal to the average voter.
This is especially perplexing because whoever wins office, of course, will have to rely on the institutions of government to pursue his goals. Yet much of government is widely perceived as dysfunctional these days — and often is. Our tax system is out of whack, our fiscal problems are stalemated, the civil service struggles to reward excellence or punish incompetence, Congress seems fundamentally incapable of resolving the issues that confront it, the bureaucracy too often seems ineffective, inefficient or downright inept.
Moreover, the amount of waste and duplication that has been allowed to flourish within the federal government is nothing short of awe-inspiring. A Government Accountability Office inquiry last year found 15 different agencies dealing with food safety; five agencies and 100 separate programs just within the Department of Transportation involved with surface transportation; seven federal agencies overseeing 20 programs to deal with homelessness; more than 2,000 federal data centers; and enough other examples to fill a 340-page report.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Americans would resonate to talk of reinventing government. There is so much disdain for the federal apparatus and lack of confidence in its procedures and results that the whole system is crying out for change, experimentation and reform.
Yet there are also powerful reasons why it doesn’t happen. The institutions of government, at heart, are structures of power. This means that even the smallest programs and agencies have their champions in elected officials, bureaucrats and a constellation of public and private interests that have grown up around them. Reform means a shift in power and resources, and will inevitably result in a fight. That is why, over the course of our history, it’s tended to happen only after a crisis.
So there is a legitimate question as to whether Congress and the executive branch are capable of rising to the challenge of reform. Politicians are reluctant to push it unless they can control it — which means controlling both houses of Congress as well as the White House. And that kind of control comes along only rarely.
Within Congress itself, despite the widespread perception that it is the “broken branch” in the federal system, there seems very little fresh thinking among its members about how to make government work better — much less willingness to engage wholeheartedly with reform.
Still, these are explanations for inaction, not excuses. During my three decades in Congress, I served on pretty much every reform commission that came up. I saw a lot of earnest effort, only some of which actually resulted in changes that stuck.
But I inevitably came away from those experiences convinced that this country could do a much better job of governance, and that Americans actively aspire to a more perfect union. They believe in the limitless capabilities of our country, and they want a government that can act effectively to realize them. It puzzles me that our political candidates don’t seem to understand that reform is the missing issue in this campaign.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. His columns are part of the educational mission of the center (centeroncongress.org).