Good Luck, Kid

Jared Kushner Won’t Be the First One Who Tried to Streamline Government

Efforts to make government more efficient go back 40 years. They haven’t all failed. But the people running them haven’t also been in charge of Iraq and Middle East peace.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In a White House where top aides have no clearly defined lanes of authority, and all are vying for Big Daddy’s attention, the rivalries are escalating to the point where even the President has had enough, ordering son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and embattled advisor Steve Bannon, to “work it out.” The dictum comes after Bannon and his “America First” nationalist agenda took a few hits thanks to the ascendancy of Kushner and his allies who Bannon dubs, “the Democrats.”

There isn’t anything that Kushner can’t do in his father-in-law’s eyes. In theory it’s a good thing that President Trump has created a new “Office of American Innovation” to overhaul the creaky federal bureaucracy and make it more efficient. There are surely lots of outdated programs, and reform is overdue, but can Trump be serious when he puts his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of this new effort?

It’s easy to find mocking assessments of Kushner, the anointed one, and his growing list of projects, from peace in the Middle East to overseeing the opioid crisis, with everything foreign and domestic in between. It’s hard to imagine Kushner, with all he’s got on his plate, getting super-excited about government reform.

I reached into my memory bank to see how similar efforts fared. Jimmy Carter came to Washington touting “zero-based budgeting,” which had worked for him in Georgia, but proved unwieldy to apply at the federal level, when there are vastly more programs to scrub. Carter’s former media advisor, Jerry Rafshoon, told me this week that the principle behind it was right, and he urged me to call Stu Eizenstat, who was Carter’s domestic policy advisor, to get a fuller picture.

First, Rafhsoon wanted to share that Kushner’s latest promotion reminded him of when Louis B. Mayer, founder of MGM, appointed his son-in-law, a second or third-rate producer, to head the iconic MGM Studio. The headline in Variety the next day said, “Son in law also rises.”

With the humor out of the way, I called Eizenstat, a serious and lawyerly policy person, who responded unhesitatingly about Kushner’s Office of American Innovation: “I applaud it. If it’s not simply used as an excuse to chop off programs at the head, but to make them more effective, it’s a timely thing to do—and he’s the right person to do it. He’s close enough to the president so agency heads realize it’s a presidential initiative, otherwise they get caught up in the bureaucracy.”

Eizenstat then proceeded to give me chapter and verse on Carter-era reforms, which included creating the Department of Energy and the Department of Education (which Republicans would like to eliminate) and a “hit list” of 19 costly water projects backed by members of Congress that Carter saw as wasteful and unnecessary.

“It was done inartfully, politically,” Eizenstat concedes, but it marked “the beginning of the end of these massive Corps of Engineers projects” that damaged wetlands, marshes and natural habitat.

Carter never recovered from the negative blowback that hit list generated in his first 100 days. “It made all those Western congressmen mad at us,” says Rafshoon. “One said to me, ‘You guys don’t understand, water to us is like you people (Southerners) on race.’” That was insult added to injury for the Georgians.

Every President since Carter has had some sort of government management reform initiative. Al Gore’s REGO (Reinventing Government) is the most well known, the most widely mocked, and in a small-bore way, the most effective.

REGO legislation sent to Congress amidst great fanfare in September 1993 didn’t go anywhere. It was parceled out to various committees and sub-committees never to surface again. But recommendations for hundreds of different proposals made it into law, and 640,000 pages of internal agency rules were tossed out, like the ashtray safety test, which Gore demonstrated by going on the David Letterman show and smashing a government-issue ashtray with a hammer.

Among REGO accomplishments: Medicare can be found under “M” in the phone book as opposed to under Health and Human Services. Obsolete field offices like the Tea-Tasters Board, the Bureau of Mines, and wool and mohair subsidies were eliminated.

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Federal workers with good ideas got “Hammer Awards,” a framed hammer that recalled Defense Department procurement scandals in the 1980s when a toilet seat cost the government $640, and a basic tool you could pick up at the hardware store cost $400.

None of what REGO accomplished was very sexy, or got much attention, but to get even as far as Gore got took an enormous amount of his attention as vice-president, plus the attention of a staff led by Elaine Kamarck, a renowned scholar in public administration and government reform efforts, whose full time job was to delve into the workings of government with an eye to improving performance.

The idea behind the currently conceived Innovation Office is to bring 21st-century private-sector thinking and technology and Big Data to the staid and stodgy world of the federal government. President Obama began that effort under duress when the healthcare.gov website he had touted for people to sign up for health care insurance collapsed of its own weight in October 2013.

Obama put out an S.O.S. to the Silicon Valley tech sector, and several tech stars answered the call. Out of that rescue mission came Obama’s U.S. Digital Service (USDS), led by Google engineer Mikey Dickerson. By the time Dickerson stepped down as a political appointee at the end of the Obama administration, USDS had 200 staffers. Tasked to improve government IT, most worked out of the White House complex with teams in key agencies like Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.

What comes across is how difficult it is to make productive reforms, how much focus it takes, how much time it takes, and how little positive reinforcement those who do this work receive. One person doing it part-time who also has to placate religious factions in Iraq and navigate the warring factions in the White House is unlikely to get very far. Maybe that’s the point.