It’s hard to disagree with Philip Howard. He pushes for cleaning up and simplifying the law, pushing responsibility to local levels, limiting lawsuits to lie within some reasonable boundaries, and reviving accountability. I have long argued that while we spend enormous amounts of time debating bigger versus smaller government, what is most at stake is creating workable government.
It seems as if the two political parties legitimately debate about leanness and progress, but the government they give us often ends up fat and regressive.
But how do we get to some of Howard’s agenda? Laws today are often written by lobbyists, not by people who have worked on how systems actually work and are fit together. Yes, lawmakers in a democracy should make final decisions on what to build; but they must let the plumbers and electricians and architects offer them reasonable options and blueprints. Phillip wants to hold public employees accountable; I would emphasize the side of his equation that gives them enough power so they can be held accountable.
Howard advocates pushing responsibility down, but the ultimate decentralization is to empower people themselves. For instance, while I applaud recent federal and state efforts to measure better the educational progress of students, our first goal should be to try to empower students and parents and teachers through such reports; empowering higher authorities to grade schools and teachers is important but comes next. Similarly, there are cases where we should simply convert a grant to individuals or lower level jurisdictions into a simple voucher or block grant; if they want to do more, they should bear the marginal costs.
Unfortunately, at election time we seem to hope that we need simply to “throw the bums out,” as my mother-in-law always advocated. But haven’t we learned by now that new officials are trapped in the same stultifying culture as those who left? One simple but powerful move would be to remove many of the political positions in Congress and the Executive Branch, beef up those nonpartisan staffs like the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office, and empower public servants throughout government to issue reports without getting political approval. Many of the improvements Howard seeks are well-understood within the government bureaucracies, but such information seldom meets the light of day.
Eugene Steuerle is an Institute Fellow at The Urban Institute & author of The Government We Deserve column. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Analysis and President of the National Tax Association.