04.10.11

20 Big Thinkers Suggest Ideas to Fix Our Broken Government

The government-shutdown drama was just the latest example of Washington's paralysis. So how can we get America moving forward? In this week's Newsweek, 20 big thinkers, from Google's Eric Schmidt to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, tell Philip K. Howard how.

Watching last week's government shutdown face-off, as symbolic things like Planned Parenthood became proxies in a dysfunctional game of chicken, it was impossible not to wonder how these guys will ever solve the huge problems our country faces. Government isn't just broke—it's broken.

And this breakdown goes past a culture of spending, as Republicans argue, or a regressive tax policy, as Democrats might counter. Decades of accumulated laws, often obsolete, have created a government paralysis of its own making.

This giant junkyard of laws and regulations that are individually well-meaning collectively act as a dead tyrant. Balancing budgets is impossible when so many policies come cast in legal concrete—farm subsidies from the New Deal made sense then, but they now send $15 billion in taxpayer dollars each year mostly to corporations because lawmakers cow to special interests. Bureaucracy crushes teachers; doctors order tens of billions in unnecessary tests to protect themselves from lawsuits; businesses forgo new opportunities because of bureaucratic hurdles; green infrastructure gets sidetracked by endless, mandated reviews.

In an ideal world, we'd scrap the byzantine legal framework we've inherited and rebuild simpler systems that permit flexibility to meet today's needs. (I'm helping launch a new campaign, Start Over, to push political leaders in that direction.) A general sunset law—every law with budgetary implications would automatically expire every 10 years unless reenacted—would impose some automatic review.

In the short term, there are solutions that we could start with now. We pulled together 20 prominent Americans to nominate elegant policy fixes—from education tweaks to job-killing rules—rooted in common sense and designed to attract support from all political stripes. America needs to hold its representatives accountable to a simple philosophy: If it's broken, fix it.

Gallery: 20 Ways to Fix Washington

Philip K. Howard, a lawyer, is the author of Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law, just released by W.W. Norton, and the bestselling The Death of Common Sense. He is chairman of Common Good and advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform.