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Who Will Fix Government?

David Callahan

By some measures, public trust of government is now at its lowest point ever recorded. To be sure, this partly reflects a concerted thirty year assault on government by conservatives. But it also reflect legitimate public doubts about the ability of government to solve problems -- doubts that are being reinforced by the calamitous rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

A few years ago, conservatives fought that law by warning: "If you like the efficiency of the post office, the competence of FEMA and the compassion of the IRS, you will love the nationalized health care bill."

Now those predictions don't sound so farfetched, even as there are many good reasons to believe that the Affordable Care Act will work just fine over the long term and this rocky transition is a small price to pay for a more inclusive system.

However things turn out, one thing is clear: Fixing a dysfunctional public sector must be a top priority of anyone who wants to further empower government to improve American life.

So how we do that?

Ironically, one of the best paths to better government would be more government. Too often, lawmakers needlessly complexify big public initiatives to appease the critics of government and cater to powerful interests. Obamacare is a case in point: If lawmakers had just expanded Medicare and Medicaid to cover all Americans -- or enacted some kind of other universal system -- we wouldn't be dealing with the problems associated with the Frankenstein-like Affordable Care Act. There are just too many moving parts in a law thta was drafted to keep insurance companies happy, mollify centrist Senators like Ben Nelson, and divide responsibility for implementation between federal and state governments. 

The same could be said for any number of other programs which must bow to market ideology, K Street, and that unique American obsession with federalism. 

Of course, the problem is that a purer role for big government is a hard sell when the public distrusts government -- and, in fact, all large institutions during the present populist moment, as I noted the other day. 

That reality underscores the need for a strong reform agenda to improve the government agencies and programs that we have. And, as it happens, there are a lot of good ideas floating around to do just that.

For instance, a big study published just a few months ago laid out an ambitious plan to foster cross-agency collaboration and manage government initiative for results, empowering "enterprise leaders," as opposed to sinking under bureaucratic proceduralism. Other studies have argued for consolidating and streamlining any number of duplicative agencies and commissions; radically downsizing the number of political appointees, many of whom take months to assume office because of confirmation delays; creating more flexibility in work rules for civil servants; simplifying the cumbersome procurement process; improving oversight of outside contractors; and more. 

The ideas are out there. What is often lacking is the political will to carry through on reform. Just look at the continuing disaster of the national security establishment, which -- over a decade after 9/11 -- still has dozens of different inteligence offices that duplicate functions and poorly coordinate with each other. 

Few presidents, including the current one, choose to spend their political capital trying to fix government. What's needed is strong outside pressure on politicians to tackled this problem. And constructive pressure of this kind can, in the end, only come from one place: a progressive movement that believes in government and wants more of it.