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. And 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. And the amount of waste and duplication that has been allowed to flourish within the federal government is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Americans would resonate to talk of reinventing government. Yet there are 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.
Still, this is an explanation for inaction, not an excuse. During my three decades in Congress, I served on pretty much every reform commission that came up. 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.
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.