Posted September 9, 2008, 9:00am
Welcome to the NewTalk's discussion on whether the new President, whoever he is, really has the chance to be a change agent. Every President since at least Carter has promised to take on the "stranglehold" of special interests. It's hard to discern much success.
This is a complex subject, so perhaps we should first circle the beast a few times and let each of you describe what you see as the problem. Then we can discuss the different aspects that seem to get in the way of responsible governing—or, indeed, change of any kind.
Posted September 9, 2008, 9:39am
Harry Truman was the first President I have read about who noted the relative powerlessness of his position in the face of bureaucracy, and Truman was a decisive leader. Part of the problem is certainly the “tenure” that civil servants have, but a much greater problem, in my opinion, is lack of clear communication with stakeholders, some of which are interest groups, and many of which are gatekeepers (think Senators with a secret hold on legislation, or the ability to write a letter to scare a bureaucrat) who simply don’t want to take the risk of rocking the boat. The default answer on any proposed change is no, not only because that is politically safest, but also because it requires less homework, less understanding.
Posted September 9, 2008, 9:48am
Breaking a cultural addiction to the tyranny of the urgent is a tall order. And it's hard not to jump higher and quicker when the voice that's yelling is louder than others and has previously demonstrated an ability to bite. Even so, elections matter and leadership makes all the difference. And the President has the unique opportunity to start and carry on a conversation with the American people—and influencers—that can yield remarkable change over time.
Posted September 9, 2008, 10:13am
As James Madison argued, in circumstances of liberty, different interests will develop and flourish—all the more so in a demographically diverse nation spanning a continent. Those interests are real, enduring forces in our society, and they will inevitably make their voices heard in the corridors of power. The art of modern democratic government is not to abolish these interests or silence their voices, but rather to link them to broader national purposes, as every successful President has done. This means entering into a dialogue with the American people, who can be persuaded to make hard choices for the future but who are—like human beings everywhere—inclined to be shortsighted and to hope that difficulties will go away if they are ignored. When the people are aroused and demand change, no special interest is strong enough to resist.
This does not mean that reforms—to blunt the influence of lobbyists and political money, for example, or to weaken the stranglehold that individual senators can exert—are beside the point. It does mean that these reforms are only a small part of a much larger problem.
Posted September 9, 2008, 10:23am
It is indeed a complex subject, but it's hard not to oversimplify with “wishful thinking” that there is one fix that would create the conditions necessary for a real change agent as President. I would focus in first on Philip's use of the term “responsible governing” and call it an almost archaic term. We have a federal government where the executive and legislative leadership is campaigning for office much more than it is governing while in office. That doesn't leave a lot of time for responsible governing, especially with the long-term complex policy challenges that face today's political leadership. But the lack of discipline around the core fiscal functions of the federal government, i.e. taking in revenues, determining spending priorities, and accountability for prudent budgeting (long term and short term) of those tax revenues is to me the where the “stranglehold” of special interests does the most harm to the country.
Posted September 9, 2008, 10:39am
The next President must learn from our greatest Presidents in times of crisis. We are in such crisis today; having lost our strategic, financial and budgetary freedom of action, our declining economic health, as well as our standing abroad. Meanwhile, we have division at home. This adds up to national disaster and a one-term Presidency.
The next President must build a bipartisan Cabinet as well as coalitions in Congress and across the nation, mobilizing the best minds and innovative capabilities as FDR did so successfully in WWII. No wonder Reagan said he was the greatest President of the Age.
Posted September 9, 2008, 10:43am
Re William Galston's comment, and a general point: reforms to "blunt the influence of lobbyists and political money" may be only a small part of the problem, but a vital part. AT&T is the biggest donor this year to the GOP, providing the party with $1.3 million, of which about $168,000 went to the campaign of John McCain. So it's no surprise that a Bloomberg story two months ago concluded simply that a "John McCain victory would be good for AT&T." Meanwhile, lobbyists sponsored hundreds of parties at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. It's true that different interests "develop and flourish," but the ones that seem to flourish most are those are have the deepest pockets. That's a fundamental problem, and a bigger obstacle to political change than "a cultural addiction to the tyranny of the urgent," or poor communication, or just about anything else. Reducing the sway of lobbyists and money is no panacea, but it's an essential first step.
Posted September 9, 2008, 11:11am
There are multiple, core problems that need to be addressed over the short and long terms. The endless cycle of electioneering requires constant infusions of capital—which leads candidate/office holders to pay court to those who can supply them with the funds they need to get elected and re-elected and re-elected and re-elected. Money and the lobbyists it buys talk too loudly; the public too softly. We need to find a way to curb the influence of money (what a utopian quest that may be) and enhance the influence of the publics that compose our nation. It is the voters, the stakeholders in our democracy that need to be re-energized, to believe in government and in the necessity of holding their governors accountable.
Posted September 9, 2008, 11:13am
It is a critical time in U.S. policymaking with so many challenges. There are policy problems: a dangerous world with new threats; unsustainable fiscal and energy policies; underinvestment in important areas of the budget—just to name a few. But to change the policies, we have to change the process, which is also broken.
These days, I am most concerned about a broken political system, in which adversarial politics so regularly trumps cooperative policymaking. The next president can help to improve partisanship by focusing on bipartisan appointments and efforts to set a new tone in Washington by truly reaching out to members of the other party, but I worry that as long as Democrats and Republicans are more worried about their parties’ standing than governance, we cannot truly meet many of these challenges.
Posted September 9, 2008, 11:19am
We know a lot about special-interest dynamics from work in the 1960s and thereafter by Mancur Olson and the public-choice theorists, and their conclusions have held up. Basically, special interests are with us forever—we can't breeze past them or wish them out of existence—and enacting reforms that serve a broad constituency at the expense of narrow ones is normally going to be hard. Very.
The good news is it can be done. The system seems able to produce one or two major reforms per decade: transportation deregulation in the 1970s, tax reform in the 1980s, welfare reform in the 1990s. (So far we're behind the curve in this decade.) It takes firm political leadership and some creative coalition-building, pitting lobbies against each other and finding ways to engage the public.
The even better news is that piecemeal reforms really matter. Look at the positive effects of changing welfare.
And now the bad news: politicians' promises to bring sweeping change overnight backfire. They make do-able reforms look disappointing and feed the cycle of cynicism ("nothing ever really changes").
Both of this year's candidates are feeding that cycle by suggesting that if we elect them, everything will change. In fact, either candidate is capable of doing a big and worthwhile reform or two. But both are setting themselves up to look disappointing.
Posted September 9, 2008, 11:40am
I think the larger problem Bill Galston referred to has been described best by Mancur Olsen, and by Jonathan Rauch in his wonderful book, Demosclerosis. What worries me about the growing power of special interests is the steady closing of the aperture of public possibility, or, in plain English, the fact that our national political system seems incapable of doing anything big. There are exceptions: welfare reform in 1996 actually ended a government entitlement. I supported it, but it probably only happened because the poor lack lobbying firepower. More typical was Bush's massive new prescription drug entitlement, which shows government can act dramatically in the direction of expansion or addition. So we get a government that grows incrementally, taxes too much to finance transfer-seeking behavior, and can't grapple effectively with big problems facing the country, like health costs and coverage, entitlement reform, or carbon dependence. This public paralysis is deeply entrenched and will require drastic reforms.
Posted September 9, 2008, 12:10pm
The essential ingredient is a President who has the intelligence to understand what needs doing, the drive to keep fighting to achieve his goals through all the difficulty and discouragement he will encounter, and the ability to inspire the American people to rise above their self-interest for the sake of what is best for the country because nearly everyone is part of one interest group or another.
He will have to inspire the ablest people to join him in government, because we now have a government full of second- and third-raters, not only among the political leadership but also among too much of the civil service which has suffered for years from the absence of effective recruiting and from too many leaders who disdained government.
I don't deny that interest groups will always be with us as William Galston points out, but there have been times in our history—e.g., 1933-1945 and 1961-1965 when again and again we saw a more generous and idealistic America.
Posted September 9, 2008, 12:18pm
Ruth Wooden was right when she pointed out that too many Presidents (and lesser officeholders) confuse campaigning and governing. Now that we are in the era of permanent campaigns, even in a President’s first year in office, I find fewer officials interested in doing the “right” thing for the long-term benefit of the nation. This trend also means that shockingly inexperienced people are taken seriously as major candidates.
The major problems we face are budgetary, particularly the $34 trillion shortfall in Medicare, but I cannot get the Administration to support even a bipartisan commission to study the problem, much less endorse specific action today. I have been begging Secretary Paulson (well before the latest housing crisis) to hold a press conference on his own Financial Report of the U.S. Government (essentially the Annual Report for America, using audited numbers and real accounting, but a report that you’ve never seen or heard about). The numbers are so damning that no one wants to be associated with the bad news, even a President who can never run again. Paulson knows better, and the first President with an MBA degree should know better, but neither is acting.
Today the federal government does not even account for the retirement and health liabilities of its own employees! This would be a criminal offense in the private sector, or even in state or local government. But top White House officials are not even close to doing anything about it. Similarly, the business plans of both the McCain and Obama administrations are to borrow another $1.5 trillion from the Social Security “trust funds.” What politicians have had the courage to say clearly to the American people that these benefits are not commitments, or even promises, but “scheduled benefits,” i.e. wishful thinking?
Posted September 9, 2008, 12:25pm
I think that public leaders and advocates focus too much on the supply side of government without giving enough creative attention to the demand side. The American people, the owners of government, have few opportunities other than on election days to help set priorities or hold government accountable for actual progress on issues they care about.
No wonder the well funded and organized special interests are so influential—they have created channels of communication directly to decision-makers, the media and the public through marketing and advertising. What is the equivalent for ordinary people, for whom government is increasingly distant and not relevant to their lives?
I completely agree with earlier comments urging the new President to have a dialogue with the American people, but to make this work, we need new channels of communication and tools to allow and encourage accountability for actual progress on public priorities. Empathizing with the problems (which get tougher with time), introducing a bill or making a promise do not equate to actual progress. We need better ways to identify and understand public priorities, clearly communicate indicators of progress (possibly from an independent source) and engage in constructive debates or brainstorming about what it will take to move the needle, and who will or will not do what.
Posted September 9, 2008, 12:41pm
We have a long and honorable history of partisan disagreements and interest group advocacy. What is different today is the unwillingness of our leaders to rise above them in the interest of long-term problem solving. This has been reinforced by partisan gerrymandering, campaign finance, and a segmented and trivial media culture. I don’t think any one is the major culprit—it’s the combination of factors. But the greatest deficit has been the leadership deficit.
Both candidates for President today promise to rise above these factors and end gridlock in Washington. And in fact, if any President can do so, Senators Obama and McCain are probably best positioned compared to others to deliver what they promise.
We should look to specific examples of success in the past to inform this discussion. In fact there are many: 1983 Social Security Reform, 1986 Tax Reform, Bush 1 and Clinton deficit reduction agreements, NAFTA, and the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act, to name just a few. Regardless of your opinion of the merits of these legislative accomplishments, they were each bipartisan and each overcame the normal structural bias against action built into our Constitution. So what factors account for successes?
I come back to leadership as the key ingredient, plus legislative skill and persistence. We had interest group involvement, of course, on both sides of each measure. So I don’t think gridlock is a function of “special interests” in every case. Sometimes it certainly is, especially when a group with a disproportionate amount of resources can dominate the public airwaves (remember Harry and Louise?). But I think this would be a more productive discussion if we thought about when gridlock was overcome and to what could we attribute that.
Posted September 9, 2008, 12:46pm
Charlie Peters is right on about the need to inspire a new generation of talent to government service. This will help to make government “of and by the people,” but we also need new ways to assure that government is working “for the people”.
Posted September 9, 2008, 1:08pm
Some of us seem to be looking for better leadership. Leadership generally rises in a time of crisis—that's when people are willing to be followers—and I'm not sure we've reached a crisis. America seems like it's sinking in the mud.
My question is whether there are structural problems that make change harder now. There doesn’t seem to be effective accountability. Politicians and bureaucrats can get away with not governing responsibly. Have all the checks and balances, detailed statutes and rules, civil service protections, etc, effectively eliminated the possibility of leaders taking responsibility?
Posted September 9, 2008, 1:35pm
There are selective issues where I believe the public and/or a majority of Congress believes there is a crisis: (a) doing something permanent about Fannie/Freddie; (b) doing something on energy, which most agree must include promotion in some way of non-fossil fuels; and yes (c) health insurance (or lack thereof), both cost and accessibility. The entitlements "crisis" is too far off for people to believe something must be done, but eventually (as a number of us discussed in a previous NewTalk roundtable) that crisis will be manifest (although I fear by then, it may be very difficult to take any meaningful action....).
Others in this group may identify other issues on which there is a broad perception of crisis.
But the key virtue of a crisis is that it is an action-forcing event, almost by definition. And so I am reasonably to highly optimistic we will see action on (a) and (b) above in the first two years of the next Administration, and even a reasonable (though far from slam dunk) chance something will happen on health care. Both Obama and McCain have pledged to reach across the aisle, and although the campaign is about to get much nastier, I remain optimistic that after the election a lot of fence-mending will take place so that some progress occurs on the issues just noted.
Posted September 9, 2008, 1:54pm
There is a lot of rich discussion here about engaging the public to hold government leadership to account, but it isn't enough to "inspire" the public, there has to be a real sense on their part that it matters for the public to step up and demand practical and realistic action on the problems the country faces. For good reason, many citizens don't see that they are asked to do much more than vote and go shopping and leave the tough problems to the experts. Inspiration is often seen as great speech making which can be a force for good or bad, but in any event, it just isn't enough to drive the kind of policy action we so desperately need. We need the nuts and bolts of people working at governing together and not running for office every other day. We need to be looking at ways for leaders to listen as well as inspire; and to engage and be accountable as well as inspire. At the time, I thought Hillary Clinton's "listening tour" around New York State when she first ran for Senator was a gimmick, but I have changed my mind—especially after talking to people who live in upstate New York. They say have seen real concrete results from what they had to say to her. It's an example of the return to the tradition of practical problem-solving in the public sphere.
Posted September 9, 2008, 2:06pm
There are huge structural and cultural problems that need to be addressed. Ultimately, we will need to engage in a range of major policy, organizational, operational and political reforms over time.
The three biggest policy challenges today are fiscal, health care and energy/environment. There are many more but, in my view, these are the top three.
I agree with David Abshire that the next President needs to build a cabinet comprised of capable persons from both major political parties as well as independents. He should also have OMB develop the Executive Branch's first-ever comprehensive and integrated strategic plan. This plan must cross the many silos of government and focus on key long-term objectives and outcome-based metrics. The President must work in a constructive and bipartisan manner with the Congress. He must also use the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency to speak directly to the American people about the need for dramatic and fundamental reforms, the benefits of timely action, and the consequences of continuing our "do nothing" and "status quo" path. After all, our collective clock is ticking and time is not currently working in our favor.
Posted September 9, 2008, 2:15pm
I agree fully with John Rother that the greatest deficit is the leadership deficit. That point is made clearly in the film I.O.U.S.A. This country only has one CEO and that is the President of the United States. That person must take the lead and work on a bipartisan basis with members in the Congress who will put America's long-term interest above their short-term political interest. The irony is that Americans are starved for truth and leadership. They want results and not rhetoric and hopefully we will get some before too long.
Posted September 9, 2008, 2:36pm
In response to Phil Howard’s provocative question about structural problems, I identified gerrymandering, campaign finance, and changes in the media. But saying things are more difficult is quite different from saying they are impossible. Health and Social Security reforms, climate change, and energy and economic reforms are urgent matters that are ripe for forward movement with the right kind of leadership initiative. These are issues that the public feels in personal and immediate terms. I don’t think that they can or should wait for process reforms that we would probably all favor.
One of the key jobs for a President is to set priorities and focus attention on one matter at a time. That will be supremely difficult for the next President, given the wide range of challenges and deficits that we face. But an early success would go a long way to lift the gloom that has developed over the past eight years about the possibility of constructive action.
Posted September 9, 2008, 2:47pm
David Walker's use of the phrase "results not rhetoric" is closer to the point I was making earlier about getting back to the tradition of practical problem-solving by political leaders. Especially by making bipartisan appointments to his cabinet, the next President will set the tone as to whether or not he plans to dig in and work diligently with leaders across government—and with citizens as well—as they all consider the options for addressing the tough choices we face on the key issues.
We know from our research here at Public Agenda that our citizens are indeed starved for truthfulness in their leaders. They know instinctively that "all is not well in the state of the U.S." but they don't trust today's leaders to have the long-term interest of the country at heart. They will need to see evidence very soon that our leaders can come together and make significant progress on a major issue. The new President and new Congress definitely need a "win" early in the next Administration on that front. It might not be a significant issue, but the "win" will definitely need to demonstrate bipartisanship at work for the public's confidence to start to take hold.
Posted September 9, 2008, 2:55pm
The obvious challenge raised by John Rother's comment is that the next President has such a large in-box, aside from campaign promises, that inevitably choices will have to be made. And, if history is any guide, then what he picks for the first two years are likely to be the only things that have a chance of getting done in the first term at least.
Judging by campaign rhetoric, I'm pessimistic that dealing with entitlements will make this first cut. That means for all practical purposes we'll have to wait yet another four years and hope that this issue makes the in-box then. One small ray of hope is that the next President tees up entitlements in the second half of his first term, either by having the kinds of national conversations suggested by Ruth Wooden and/or by, yes, convening a commission, but one that is truly bipartisan and that is headed by Congressional heavies from both sides of the aisle.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:04pm
But John Rother, you work for AARP which is opposed to serious Medicare reform discussions (even my bipartisan bill with Frank Wolf for a commission) until we solve private sector health problems. AARP also opposes accounting for seniors' Social Security and Medicare benefits until the month they need the checks. The private sector standard is "vesting" which allows business to prepare for retiree needs. These are just some of the issues on which lawmakers are being slowed (and sometimes intimidated) by your giant interest group. Meanwhile Standard & Poors and Moody's are projecting that the US Treasury bond could lose its AAA rating as soon as 2012 due to Medicare's and Medicaid's problems.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:08pm
Let me ask the leadership question in a different way. In the past three decades, there have been a few major new initiatives, but only one I can think of—welfare reform—that undid an old program.
The new presidents all promised change, but couldn't deliver.
Maybe it's not a genetic flaw in the leadership of the people in those administrations, but something else, or a combination of things.
Here's one idea: those leaders failed because no one--inside or outside of government--rallied public opinion behind real change. So the presidents got sucked into the Washington vortex.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:13pm
For the new President to successfully demonstrate real leadership and act courageously in office, he will need to set the stage during the campaign.
If candidate McCain and candidate Obama start preparing the public for the fact that making progress on the nation's fiscal challenges, or energy independence, or other similar types of reforms, will involve sacrifice, it will be much easier for them to lead once in office. They need not go as far as laying out fully detailed plans that would be demagogued into oblivion, but they do have to prepare the country that the future doesn't just hold tax cuts, spending increases, and subsidies for windmills to get where we need to go. Pollsters have told the candidates that the public responds positively to messages about reform and change. My guess is that the courage to push that message a bit farther with reminders that tough policy choices will also be involved, would generally sit well with a public that would appreciate a bit more honesty from politicians.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:18pm
It might be useful to quantify the dimensions of the structural impediments to systemic reform in national politics. There are more than 16,000 active Federal lobbyists in Washington. Last year, they spent $2.8 billion, or more than $5 million per member of Congress. It goes without saying that investments on this scale wouldn't be made if they didn't generate handsome returns. In fact, they represent a massive investment in the programmatic status quo. Monied interests can't always get what they want, but they are adept at blocking what they don't want. Can they be overridden occasionally? Of course. But the key is their power is growing, raising the bar for serious accomplishment for those brave and inspiring leaders we'd all like to see step up to the plate.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:32pm
Unfortunately, most proposals for "change" involve big new programs and spending such as new health care coverage, education programs, etc. Candidates for office rarely want to talk about undoing existing programs. There are some programs in addition to welfare reform that have been trimmed. General revenue sharing was eliminated and the Black Lung program was reformed to slow its growth. Compared to the fiscal challenges of Medicare and the health delivery system in general, these reforms were small scale efforts.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:40pm
Following up on Philip Howard’s last comment, I agree that we’ve got to find a way to set a public agenda, an action agenda, to somehow rally public opinion for “real change.” Things get done, legislation gets written, for better or worse, when the public gets aroused, e.g. by Ron Lauder on term limits or by anti-abortion groups on what they erroneously but effectively referred to as “partial birth” abortions. We can’t expect the politicians to freely chose to tackle the tough issues: whether they be foreign policy, the war on terrorism, energy. It’s much easier to go after easy targets like “earmarks,” though they account for an infinitesimal portion of an out-of-control federal budget.
No politician of either party is going to initiate a conversation on big-budget items, like defense, to cite just one example, until there is a concerted public outcry that forces their hand. I agree entirely with Ruth Wooden that we’ve got to find ways to “inspire” the public to raise its voice and set an agenda that the politicians will be forced to act on. But we’re caught in a vicious circle. The public doesn’t act because it has lost faith in government and its lack of action leaves the politicians alone to play their same old songs.
Posted September 9, 2008, 3:47pm
A multi-year Brookings project has documented that both political elites and the American people are far more polarized than they were thirty years ago. It’s not just interest groups that are thwarting action; deep divisions in the body politic are important as well. In many issue areas, liberals and conservatives have lost a common frame of reference. In the early 1970s, for example, Richard Nixon was able to say that “we’re all Keynesians now.” That agreement didn’t preclude disagreements on specific policies, but it did means that participants in the discussion proceeded on the basis of shared facts and a shared understanding of how the world worked. That entente has given way to a clash between a party that believes that within limits, raising taxes increases revenue without impeding economic growth and a party that believes just the opposite. Real leadership will have to break through these differences and promote a new conversation. Focusing too much on interest groups, lobbyists, and money obscures these deeper trends, the tectonic plates of American public life.
Posted September 9, 2008, 4:09pm
Maya is exactly right. The Presidential candidates must start talking about the need for tough choices even if they don't get specific on what they are proposing to do. Candidly, we are in the process of analyzing the fiscal polices of both candidates and two preliminary points seem clear. There isn't nearly as much difference between the two on the bottom line fiscal numbers as they would like you to believe. In addition, neither one of them is addressing the serious fiscal sustainability challenge that we face.
Posted September 9, 2008, 4:15pm
In response to Jim Cooper’s challenge, AARP does indeed oppose some ideas but favors others. We are making a major push for health reforms that would “bend the curve” of costs in both public and private health programs, and we are certainly prepared to support a fair Social Security reform that protects the adequacy of benefits for those most in need. So please don’t paint us with the status quo brush. We are more oriented to substantive reforms rather than procedural ones, but we are certainly in favor of reform.
Posted September 9, 2008, 4:29pm
I'm afraid that the central structural problem is that the founding fathers designed a government that, except in matters of national security, encourages inaction. Unfortunately, this tendency is often reinforced by lobbyists who oppose reform and by politicians and bureaucrats who are risk-averse.
This is why I think the kind of president I described earlier is so important. I should have made clear, however, that he not only has to inspire the people, he must be able to explain, as FDR was so gifted at doing, why the reform is needed and to convince the public that indeed it is essential. I suspect the reason so many of us have been attracted to Obama is that, though it is far from certain he will be that kind of president, at least he has the potential to be the kind of leader we so desperately need.
Posted September 9, 2008, 4:33pm
I also agree with Maya’s point about the need to acknowledge necessary sacrifice. I’m dismayed by the reliance of both candidates on promises of tax cuts, and debating whose are bigger. This is not an adult conversation, unless someone believes that cutting taxes will actually raise revenue. Bush lost the public on sacrifice by refusing to call for greater contributions even in the face of war. But in a culture that accepts debt financing in almost every aspect of our private lives, perhaps its inevitable that talk of balanced budgets sounds so very old-fashioned.
Bill Galston’s point about greater public polarization is also reflected in our polling, and I agree it’s not primarily a function of interest group activity. I believe it is a reflection of the lack of engagement across party lines at the top and at most levels of government.
Posted September 9, 2008, 4:39pm
But Maya and David, it's already too late in this campaign to expect either candidate to talk seriously about the need to do something about the long-run entitlements problem. Our only hope for at least the next two years, in my view, is that whoever is elected starts that conversation in the second half of the first term. Neither candidate can do credibly what President Clinton did after he was elected, and somewhat reverse course by saying, in effect, "oops, the budget situation is worse than we thought when I was running." The facts are already out there for both campaigns—they've long been out there. Neither would have any credibility if he said, in effect, forget what I said in the campaign, we're going to do entitlement reform instead.
That's why I think our only hope is that after whoever wins tackles the first two or three things in the in-box—presumably Fannie/Freddie, energy, and health care (which could take an entire Administration), the President then says to the American people: now that we've done what we promised, we have to turn next to the largest domestic challenge that confronts us....
Posted September 9, 2008, 4:50pm
I'll be the third one to weigh in on this point about acknowledging the sacrifice that our leaders and citizens need to face up to. Our citizens seem much more ready to accept that reality than the political candidates these days. It's hard to fathom how they—the politicians—can miss the signs of this sentiment. The irony seems to be that leaders think the public doesn't care about anything but themselves and their own pocketbook and our citizens think that politicians don't think about anything but hanging onto their own jobs. Checkmate.
Posted September 9, 2008, 5:20pm
We're getting towards the end of the first day, and I see a few themes. Lobbyists are here to stay, but need to be trumped by effective leadership to the broader public. The public itself may be polarized and/or used to voting for their own pocketbooks. Our founders gave a system where change is difficult. Please, Lord, give us FDR back.
Part of what's missing, I think, is a hypothesis about what should happen. How can we reduce healthcare costs? What's a better accountability system than No Child Left Behind? What's the ten year plan to reduce the deficit? We're not getting that from political leaders because any new plan will upset lots of people. I also think we're missing a hypothesis on how to make change in Washington. It is hopeless, I submit, to amend any mature regulatory program. They've all evolved into gargantuan Rube Goldberg machines. I'd like a leader who says..."We're going to start with a clean slate, and see how we can best provide care to the chronically ill (75% of all costs)" and the like.
So as we move this discussion into the second day, I'd like each of you to describe what you think a leader should say and do. I'd also like you think about how, if the leadership continues to be weak, others of us can mobilize to bring pressure for responsible change.
Posted September 9, 2008, 6:19pm
To pick up on Philip’s point about rallying public opinion, the challenge is to build public ownership of big difficult changes (health care, energy, education to name a few). We need credible engagement of the public, not just to educate and sell an idea, but to get input to help pinpoint the problems and work on the tough trade-offs—what people will have to give up in order to achieve a larger goal.
Should the President lead such a conversation with the American people? What structures/forums would be best to assure intergovernmental cooperation, the involvement of the private sector and the media to bring the discussion to as many people as possible and what tools can allow and encourage people to hold government accountable for results? We at the Council have used a combination of survey research, town hall meetings, expert working groups, and media partnerships to engage the public. We have not found effective tools for public accountability but know that we need them.
Does anyone in this distinguished group have suggestions about to rally the public and improve accountability for actual results?
Posted September 9, 2008, 9:30pm
I have enjoyed reading the comments already posted by others – and agree with many of the lamentations about the ever growing role and influence of interest groups and the death of honest discussion regarding some of the truly daunting challenges (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) facing our nation. However, I do want to weigh-in with a hopeful comment.
The presumptive nominees of the two major parties are certified outsiders – who have not been part of the poisonous, money-driven, partisan and special interest dominated Washington scene. John McCain (who arrived in DC with me as freshmen congressmen in 1982) has long been known for his maverick ways. Still in his first term, Illinois Senator Barrack Obama is clearly no Washington insider.
In order to secure their respective party’s backing, both McCain and Obama had to compete in a crowded field of candidates. Throughout that primary and caucus process – including numerous debates and countless public appearances – Obama and McCain consistently conducted themselves in a dignified manner and treated their opponents with civility.
These two candidates are demonstrating that they – thankfully – intend to set a new standard for presidential campaigns. For his part, Barrack Obama has refused special interest money and contributions from lobbyists – and now he has convinced the Democratic National Committee to do the same. At the same time, John McCain has excluded lobbyists from working on his campaign – and (lest we forget) he led the effort to enact a ban on unlimited and unregulated political contributions (the McCain-Feingold law).
Money from special interests has for too long dominated our political system. Over the years, both of the major parties have become addicted to these dollars. In McCain (who has also led the fight against special interest porkbarrel spending) and Obama, we apparently have two reformers who want to end the influence of big money – and restore the importance of the average voter.
While the two candidates will naturally offer different approaches to America’s current challenges – whoever wins seems likely to usher in a new approach to decision-making and, if we are lucky, usher out the “old politics.”
Posted September 9, 2008, 9:45pm
I believe that we need to do many things to get back on a prudent and sustainable path, but I'll just mention three:
We need a Fiscal Future Commission that would engage the public outside the Beltway along with key stakeholders and the press. Such a Commission needs to address statutory budget controls, Social Security, tax and health care reforms at a minimum.
We need to conduct an organizational and operational review of the federal government. This review should result in a streamlining and re-engineering of the Washington bureaucracy, including the Defense Department.
We need a set of key national outcome-based indicators to inform federal planning, appropriations, oversight, and authorization decisions. These would also help to enhance citizen engagement and improve accountability for results.
Importantly, major reforms will not be achievable without an effective case being made to the American people, real presidential leadership from the White House and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
Posted September 9, 2008, 11:48pm
Going into the second day, and reading the comments so far, a couple of comments by way of setting the table:
1) INACTION: If you think reforms should be mapped out years in advance by experts, then we're in bad shape. But, of course, U.S. politics and policy-making don't work that way, and thank goodness. The bias toward inaction is, on balance, a lesser evil than a bias toward precipitous action.
2) THE AGENDA: I like David Walker's analysis that the three big problems (apart from foreign policy) are fiscal, health care, and energy/environment. But I think the first two are really the same, aren't they? Would experts on this list agree that Social Security isn't very hard to deal with, at least in terms of the magnitudes involved, and that soaring health-care costs are the overwhelming source of long-term fiscal pressure?
3) ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT: These are big, long-term problems. The first step toward grappling with them is to get them on the national political agenda and start inching toward a consensus approach. I'd say on energy/environment the campaign is doing a pretty good job of that. Obama and McCain are both focusing public attention on the issue. And a lot of the interest groups—energy companies, utilities, car companies, etc.—are falling into line. We'll see plug-in electric cars on the mass market in two or three years. So count me cautiously optimistic on this one.
4) FISCAL/HEALTH: Here I think the problem is less the special interests and other institutional impediments than that NO ONE KNOWS WHAT TO DO. The health care problem is just really, really difficult. But here, too, I think the political system is being helpful. Both candidates have put out worthwhile health-care plans. A successful reform would probably require a melding of both approaches. So there's raw material here for a consensus to emerge.
The process is messy, cumbersome, slow (blame James Madison). But aren't we making a start?
Posted September 10, 2008, 7:13am
I would like to commend and agree with Tim Penny's fair and balanced comments on the two major Presidential candidates. Both represent a break from the status quo and both are committed to changing the way that Washington works. It's time to put Washington to work on meeting our collective challenges rather than focusing on the wants of special interests or the desires of any particular political party.
Posted September 10, 2008, 7:32am
Dave Walker has provided some specificity on what needs to be done, and the Peterson Foundation has launched an ambitious public campaign.
I think there needs to be tangible goal that the public can understand—like JFK's promise to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, or, today, we must reduce healthcare spending by X percent. I don't think the candidates are close to anything like that. So it all comes out looking like policy mush.
Posted September 10, 2008, 9:55am
It's not that I disagree with most of the commentators, but I still think there's not enough recognition here about the power of special interest lobbies in shaping policy, and more importantly in limiting what's possible in terms of serious policy changes. See, for example, today's New York Times story "For '08 Rivals, a Skein of Ties to Loan Giants":
“The Senators Barack Obama and John McCain each cite the mess at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as a consequence of the corrosive coziness of lobbyists and politicians that they promise to end. But each man and his party also have ties to the fallen giants that will complicate the next president's job of reshaping the mortgage finance companies that have been essential to the economy. The Republican nominee, Mr. McCain of Arizona, has numerous close relationships with and contributions from current and former company lobbyists. Mr. Obama, his Democratic rival from Illinois, is second among members of Congress in donations from the firms' employees and political action committees.
“Beyond the antilobbyist message, Mr. Obama also indicts the Bush administration and the Republicans who controlled Congress for a dozen years until 2007, including Mr. McCain. He blames them for lax regulation that freed the companies to go deep into debt to buy the mortgages that crushed them as the housing crisis persisted. Yet his fellow Democrats in Congress have been well known as enablers of the two companies for years, protecting the firms' dueling responsibilities to support affordable housing as well as to maximize shareholder profits. For all their outrage now, neither Mr. Obama, with less than four years in the Senate, and Mr. McCain, after a quarter-century in the House and Senate, has a record of directly challenging the companies.”
You see the same forces at play on every major issue facing the country. No, lobbyists and special interest groups don't hold all the cards, but they do hold a lot of them. So are we making a start, or are we merely treading water?
Posted September 10, 2008, 10:24am
If our presidential candidates are seeking a mandate for anything, it's changing the way Washington works. More than health care, clean energy or taxes, that's the theme that resonates with voters. Trouble is, neither Obama nor McCain has offered compelling ideas for fixing our broken political system.
Restoring fiscal sanity in Washington is a big part of that task, so I'd endorse David Walker's ideas. But what our next president needs most is a political gamechanger—a bold opening move to weaken Washington's transactional culture. So I think the president-elect ought to start off by trying to break the link between special interests and Congressional campaigns through some sort of public finance scheme. That would show the public he's serious about reform and governing in the public interest. It's probably also a precondition for anything more than incremental fixes to any of the big problems we've talked about.
There's been a note of fatalism in this exchange about special interests. Lobbyists we will always have with us, but the extent of their power and influence is not immutable—it's something we can change. The power of lobbyists is noticeably weaker in Brussels and in European countries with public financing. We don't have to accept a system in which special interests have privileged access to members of Congress, and in which members spent a fourth to a third of their waking hours rattling tin cups instead of focusing on the nation's problems. So while I accept that special interest financed Congressional campaigns aren't the only obstacle to problem-solving in Washington, they are something we can do something about now. So is partisan gerrymandering, but that's another subject.
Posted September 10, 2008, 10:54am
It is not too late for the candidates to call for sacrifice or speak to the need for tough choices more directly—and I agree with Tim Penny’s optimistic assessment of these two candidates as people who could do it.
Each candidate has an important pledge out there that could prove to be helpful. McCain has promised to balance the budget by 2013; Obama has promised to pay for all his new tax and spending policies. So far, their numbers don’t add up and would in fact add roughly $350 billion a year to the deficit. (See our Voter Guide, Promises, Promises)
But, those promises could prove to be useful once one of them gets into office and they can use the pledge as an excuse to rethink some of their campaign promises and as a shield against the pressure to add further costly policies prior to addressing existing challenges.
But vague promises would not be enough. A candidate will have to give a major “fiscal responsibility” speech or use the debate as a platform to challenge the country and their opponent to do more on the issue.
Such an event could swing the entire campaign in the right direction of laying the foundation for real reform in the next few years. It wouldn’t be useful for either candidate to lay out a fully detailed plan to balance the budget, reform Social Security, or fix Medicare (if we only knew how!) since they would be demagogued into oblivion. But if they were more specific or aggressive on stating a fiscal goal, such as “my first priority is to balance the budget by the end of my first term” or “I pledge to implement measures to slow the growth of healthcare costs and Social Security before committing a single dollar of borrowed fund to new priorities” it would be immensely powerful.
Posted September 10, 2008, 11:01am
I have a different take on the problem before us. While special interests matter, partisan polarization matters more. No progress can be made on the tough issues unless the political parties are willing to break bread together rather than throwing grenades from their respective foxholes. For example: the last time we had a discussion of Social Security that led to real action was in 1983, thanks to the Greenspan Commission and back-channel discussions between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
Alas, neither candidate has done a very good job of preparing the American people for the hard issues we face: each promises progress without sacrifice. But all is not lost. If Obama is elected, the huge and mounting budget deficit will drastically limit new initiatives unless and until attention is paid to existing commitments. If McCain is elected, he will face enlarged Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate. This should give him ample incentive to do the right thing—if he wants to get anything done. He might be able to break the gridlock by governing from Day One as though he will be a one-term president, by staffing his administration with non-token representatives of the Democratic party and independent experts as well as Republican loyalists, by initiating regular and meaningful consultation with congressional leaders, and by working out bipartisan approaches on issues such as energy and Social Security. Even fiscal policy might prove amenable to such an approach: if McCain were willing to modify his stated position on government revenues in return for serious spending restraints, we could see a repeat of the mid and late 1990s.
As for health care, I agree with Jonathan Rauch: it’s not just a question of political will and special interests; we genuinely don’t know what to do to rein in costs in a manner consistent with our basic values.
Posted September 10, 2008, 11:15am
Philip asked us last night for real solutions to our budget, health care, and other problems. There is actually much good news, if we are willing to look under the hood and turn a deaf ear to the pundits and interest groups.
On budgets, CBO has dramatically improved its expertise on the major health care issues and has shown greater backbone, such as, for example, insisting that the Fanny/Freddie bailout be placed on budget. As for action on budgets, almost 100 members of Congress in both parties have signed on to the Cooper-Wolf bill for a bipartisan commission, despite the opposition of the White House and AARP. The next President will have to act because he will face annual deficits of at least $600 billion, rapidly heading toward $1 trillion. Of course the real fiscal gap is, and has been, closer to $2.5 trillion annually, but it will take Washington a while to admit that.
The largest budget issues are health care, but even here there is growing consensus. The bipartisan Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act has 16 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, half from each party and a substantial number on Senate Finance. This has occurred despite opposition from both the AFL-CIO and some large business groups. Shannon Brownlee’s book, Overtreated, points the way toward many sensible health reforms that could save, according to the CBO director, Peter Orszag, $700 billion annually while improving public health.
On energy and the environment, bills are emerging that have bipartisan support that allow more drilling, curb global warming, promote conservation and renewables, etc. Election-year politics will obscure this bipartisan consensus, but it is real.
The one thing we know about the next President is that he is a Senator who understands the 60-vote cloture rule. We are well on the way toward building major legislation that can get enough votes, but it will take some forbearance on the part of key interest groups not to blow these bills up.
Posted September 10, 2008, 11:17am
As someone interested in legal reform, I am painfully aware of the blocking power of special interests—Common Good's proposal to do pilots of special health courts is supported by consumer groups like AARP, patient safety groups, virtually all providers, most major editorial boards.......yet, the trial lawyers can keep it off the floor.
I suppose we can try to change the rules, again, but I've always thought the best solution to their influence is accountability. That requires restoring a sense of outrage, however. A climate of public cynicism about our leaders—more than justified—is not one conducive to public accountability.
Posted September 10, 2008, 11:33am
Special interests have a disproportionate impact on the fate of legislation addressing topics—such as special health courts—that aren’t on the public’s radar screen. But if the question is Social Security, or Medicare, or energy, the balance shifts. Whatever anyone may think of expanded drilling as a response to higher oil prices, there’s no question that the public has weighed in...or that politicians are responding.
Posted September 10, 2008, 11:53am
Let me take on the idea that we don’t know what to do in healthcare. There may indeed be no perfect solution given political attitudes and ideological differences, but the fact that we spend so much more than other advanced countries and cannot demonstrate better outcomes should at least suggest that we could learn from them. We also spend much more in some parts of the U.S. than others, again with no evidence that the increased utilization produces better outcomes—in fact, just the reverse.
So whether we look to the Netherlands or Switzerland, Minnesota or Oregon, we clearly have examples of more efficient and more effective health systems. The keys aren’t that difficult to identify, and include: electronic medical records, chronic care coordination and medical homes, a shift from specialty care to primary care in physician reimbursement, rewarding good care and refusing to pay for errors, a no-fault approach to compensation for injured patients, and a much more robust public health program in schools and communities. All these work in the context of insurance coverage that protects everyone and encourages appropriate use.
We know how do this things—they are already in place in one part of the world or another—but we haven’t had the leadership or the political will to push such reforms against both partisan and interest group (the AMA, Pharma, the hospital lobby) opposition. So let’s get on with it post election!
Posted September 10, 2008, 12:05pm
I would agree with comments made above that both Presidential candidates are now calling for change; however, I also believe that neither candidate has yet defined his ways and means to achieve that change.
I think it is critical to separate two very important issues. The primary issue is the President-elect’s immediate willingness to recognize the extent of the fiscal and budgetary crisis. This unsustainable course also reflects the decline in the wellsprings of American genius that lay in basic research and innovation—those things noted in Norm Augustine’s National Academies’ study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. David Walker’s studies also already sound the alarm on our unsustainable financial course. The next President needs to make an immediate call for change and say that he is going to take a page from the book of great Presidents, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt and running through the Cold War. These Presidents believed that in times of severe challenge, one has to unite the country, build partnerships with Congress and mobilize the best minds across the nation to innovative action.
The second requirement of change is to create a movement to reform Washington. This should be a long range effort and can run through the first term. We need to get the younger generation and the digital revolution to join in. This is a two-pronged effort and immediate priority should be given to my first point.
Posted September 10, 2008, 1:00pm
I agree with Maya. The fiscal plans being offered by each candidate do NOT add up. In fact, they make matters worse. See the report Maya developed for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that summarizes and does the math on the Obama and McCain plans (both on the tax and spending side). Obama promises to tax only the rich while expanding domestic and entitlement spending. McCain promises to end pork and to trim "unspecified" programs while extending the Bush tax cuts (which he initially opposed). And, both candidates are proposing NEW tax cuts—though targeted at different folks. It seems the electorate is not ready for frank talk about shared sacrifice on these fiscal challenges. After all, campaigns are designed to tell us what we want to hear—not necessarily what we need to hear. And, we all know that after the election we still have a system dominated by interest groups that have NO interest in fiscal responsibility.
However, I remain optimistic that once the election dust settles, we have in Obama and McCain two reformers who will be less interested in catering to interest groups—and more willing to tell the American public that "there is no free lunch." Recall that Clinton—in the weeks after the election—cast aside his promise of a middle class tax cut in favor of a concerted effort to trim the deficit. Let us trust that likewise with Obama and McCain fiscal realities will matter more after the election than on the campaign trail. An economic conference such as the one held sixteen years ago in Little Rock would be a good place to start. Maybe the Peterson Foundation (are you reading this David Walker?) could offer to underwrite such an event. In addition, it would be enormously helpful if the winning candidate would reach out to prominent people in the opposing party and from the private sector to join the administration. That would signal a break with the past and a true commitment to finding bi-partisan solutions to our looming fiscal challenges. Finally, it may be time to resurrect the notion of a Bi-Partisan Blue Ribbon panel with membership comprised of both congressional and administration appointees to propose reforms followed by an up or down vote. It would actually be nice to see at least one of the presidential candidates talk about this approach before November.
Posted September 10, 2008, 1:05pm
In addition to campaigning to win 270 electoral votes, both candidates should decide on a few high-priority initiatives and focus transition planning, scheduling, first State of the Union, first budget accordingly.
Of course, the war in Iraq, national security and the economic downturn/housing crisis/jobs will be on the list, with a great deal of short term urgency. My three areas for new initiatives would be 1) improving the value and controlling the cost of health care, which will require public support, a coalition of employers and “special interests” in the health arena, bipartisan congressional leadership, and a strong commitment to structural change that goes beyond the excellent suggestions of John Rother; 2) seeding the transformation of energy policy to significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil—new technology, new approaches, in the context of global climate change, and 3) education, with a focus on attracting a new generation of talented teachers.
The transition should be managed to prepare to hit the ground running on this agenda: selecting the most critical appointees first and working to get them confirmed long before the usual 4 to 6 months or longer delay; preparing the budget to reflect priorities in the context of the fiscal reality, which David Walker articulates so well; and developing policy and outreach approaches to design/build ownership of significant change in health care most urgently and energy and education, with longer term transformation in mind.
A 9/11-model Presidential Commission on Health Care, with bipartisan group of leaders and public entrepreneurs should be charged to recommend and build support for health care reform that will contain costs, improve quality and efficiency and cover the uninsured (in that order). Effective engagement of the public and influential leaders to offset the very powerful special interests in this arena. Success here would be a huge step forward and could energize a bipartisan core group of leaders and pave the way for other difficult reforms.
Posted September 10, 2008, 1:27pm
I agree with David Walker and Philip Howard that major change is needed at most government agencies. But I doubt that it will prove politically feasible to implement reform quickly. Public support will be lacking because the public is largely ignorant of the problems of the executive branch below the White House. This is because the media has done such a terrible job of covering these agencies. I head a foundation to encourage better reporting about the executive branch but we are swimming against the tide as the situation grows worse with one newsroom cutback after another.
What can be done now is for the new President to appoint leaders of the agencies who are courageous enough to fight the special interests and who are smart enough to make the right policy and personnel decisions. This is why I urge all those who care about good government to pay careful attention to the transition period from Nov. 5 to Jan. 20 when the new president will be selecting his agency heads. Do everything you can to encourage the best choices and expose the bad ones in time.
Posted September 10, 2008, 1:59pm
At the risk of being the skunk at the party, I will somewhat repeat what I said yesterday on the fiscal challenge: given the 20 months each prez candidate has invested in his platform, it is sheer fantasy to expect either to turn on a dime after the election and acknowledge, let alone do something about, the long-term fiscal problems facing the country. Sure, maybe a nod, but nothing real. Each has an agenda and each wants it enacted. And that agenda will only make things worse fiscally, we can all agree.
The best chance of getting movement on the fiscal issue is starting in the second half of the first term, assuming the economy has recovered by then. The President can then say it's time now to tackle the long-term issues. Even then, we will probably have to wait to, yes, the next Administration for something to happen. If we're lucky.
By the way, I hope I'm wrong, but with age comes much cynicism (and perhaps some insight).
Posted September 10, 2008, 2:05pm
Amidst the handwringing and lamentations about the constraints of Presidents and legislators – who must constantly be in campaign mode at the expense of long-term thinking and are subject to the influence of special interests – there is a general acceptance of the idea that election day will always be the nexus of our leader-citizen interaction. I don’t accept that premise.
To be clear, and to pick up on Patricia McGinnis’s questions about how we can more effectively engage the public to hold our leaders more accountable, we don’t need to continue our present system where the primary citizen interaction is the November roll of the dice and we don’t get to have input again until the next vote. What I would like to suggest, and I may not be the first to do so, is that we need a nationwide system to bring people into public dialogue on big issues – a system that is as sophisticated as the problems are complex.
There are dozens of organizations doing great work across the country engaging citizens on tough issues. But there is no system that ensures that representative samples of Americans are involved in dialogue, that issues are explored thoroughly, that the process has legitimacy, that media report on the considered thinking of the public and that then holds leaders accountable for acting on the public will.
It can be done. And such a system would put a great deal more pressure on our elected leaders.There are lots of foundations funding public engagement projects around the country, but they are scattered and don’t get much media attention.
We need to create a public input system that runs alongside our voting system. As long as we only ask of our citizens to be involved in the process for just one day in November, we'll be stuck with the same kind of dysfunctional politics that games our system all 365 days of the year.
Posted September 10, 2008, 2:23pm
I concur with the suggestions by Congressman Cooper regarding options and approaches that could lead to serious bipartisan work on some of the tough issues we face. My apologies for not referencing, in particular, the Cooper-Wolf legislation in my earlier post. He is right that on energy and health care, there have been some notable bipartisan efforts in recent months. The next President would do well to begin a dialogue on these and other contentious issues by first reaching out to the legislators that have shown the courage to create these bipartisan coalitions. That would set the tone for the kind of bipartisan solutions that will be required on a range of issues. In other words, leave the interest groups on the outside—and instead recognize, reinforce and reward those inside Congress who are showing that it is possible to get both sides to work together.
Posted September 10, 2008, 2:27pm
Just a quick response to John Rother's comment about solutions to health care. He is right that there are options out there to consider. But few of them get to the heart of the upward cost spiral in the health arena. When you look at universal coverage in other nations—nations that also seem to spend a lot less per capita than the US on health care—it is almost always tied to some notable LIMITS on coverage. Most groups advocating healthcare reform in America focus on coverage without addressing (at least not very seriously) cost control. Obviously, placing limits on care is not an easy sell in America. But in some fashion, we need to educate and sensitize the public to the factors that are driving the rising costs of health care. We will never arrive at a "solution" unless these factors are honestly addressed—and that will not be easy. If it were easy, we would have done it long ago.
Posted September 10, 2008, 2:48pm
I don't see much inconsistency in the comments, even from the Skunk-like Litan.
The most glaring omission in the political landscape is a coherent outside force for the common good, an organization that could put pressure on the transition committees, and could affirmatively champion programs like those of Congressman Cooper.
Various of us have our own ideas and reform proposals, but there's no coalition of coalitions that can actively humiliate officials who act as Ken Silverstein and Jon Rauch have described.
Posted September 10, 2008, 2:53pm
Tim Penny is right, there are limits that should be imposed in connection with health care spending. The United States is the only major country that does not have a budget for health care costs. This cannot continue. We need to take steps to reduce the rate of increase in health care costs and also move to enact comprehensive health care reform in installments and over time. Such comprehensive reforms should address coverage, cost, quality and personal responsibility elements. The last thing we should do is place millions of Americans into a system that is both unacceptable and unsustainable.
I also agree with Jim Cooper that his bill with Frank Wolf represents a solid basis for making progress on multiple fronts. Hopefully something like it will become law in the coming months.
Posted September 10, 2008, 3:02am
CBO may be beefing up on their health care expertise and showing more backbone regarding selected issues, but they blew their Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ‘bail out” estimates big time. There is also a tendency to underestimate the cost of major health care proposals. More importantly, we need to consider the long-term affordability and sustainability of major tax and spending proposals before they are enacted into law. Furthermore, we need to remember the first rule of holes, when you are in a hole, stop digging!!
Posted September 10, 2008, 3:46pm
Tim Penny and I are on the same page, I think: the impact of interest groups increases if the two political parties are at loggerheads. If the next president is willing to work from the center out, rather than from the left or right in, that will empower the beleaguered members of both political parties who are willing to work together constructively. I’m not sure what an outside force for the common good would be, but I am sure that inside forces, led by the president, would be far more effective. Leadership is the sine qua non.
Posted September 10, 2008, 3:48pm
To be fair to CBO, they greatly overestimated the cost of the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit. Actual costs are running 40% below their estimates. But I agree with David Walker's general point about the need to consider long term affordability—we never would have enacted the Bush tax cuts if the impact had been more clearly explained to the public.
Posted September 10, 2008, 3:50pm
I agree with Ruth and Philip that we need an independent outside force for public input and I would add—a public scorecard or scorecards for the President and members of Congress to create visible public accountability for progress on high priority issues—cost of health care, educational achievement, energy independence, etc.—things that resonate with the public and the media. Who would fund this and how could it become systematic?
Also, I would suggest that the President issue a call for people (young and older) to serve in government—ask them, as John Kennedy did. We are now seeing the baby boomers who answered the Kennedy call retiring from government. A new generation of energy and passion, and some more experienced hands could energize an important public agenda for the common good.
Posted September 10, 2008, 4:56pm
I think I detect two broad approaches—styles—in our discussion so far. One emphasizes incrementalism and doing what's doable within the boundaries of transactional politics, though looking for ways to stretch those boundaries. The other puts more weight on movement politics: a "break with the past," a "sense of outrage," "a movement to reform Washington," a big, center-stage effort to put partisan disagreements aside.
I think incrementalism, frustrating though it may be, is more likely to work. It's just not realistic, IMHO, to think we can mass-mobilize the country and create a breakthrough movement or moment for change. First, because the interest groups won't go away and they speak, collectively, for 300 percent or more of the electorate. Second, more fundamentally, because we Americans don't agree—not even close—on what kind of change to make (and I think a commission would wind up being as divided as the public). Third, because the voters have a well justified aversion to bold, radical departures.
Like it or not (and actually I like it), I think we'll have to build consensus gradually and chip away. If anything, the demand for grandstanding gestures makes successful incrementalism harder. Movements may be the enemy of movement. (Clever, eh?)
Posted September 10, 2008, 5:03pm
For the record, my comment about health care costs estimates did not relate to CBO's Medicare Part D estimate. I was speaking in general terms. After all, many people and organizations make such estimates, including campaigns.
Posted September 10, 2008, 5:21pm
Like Jonathan Rauch, I see a tension between transactional and movement politics; unlike him, I’m not persuaded that the former always consigns us to incrementalism. While I believe that in current circumstances, enduring policy changes will require bipartisan agreement, it may be that the two parties will be able to converge on bolder action than either could have taken, acting alone. For example, a bipartisan approach to energy policy could very well result in action across a wider front than would otherwise happen—that is, if each party is willing to take onboard the other’s best ideas.
Posted September 10, 2008, 5:36am
Jonathan does articulate a difference that's emerged. I believe that fixing healthcare and becoming fiscally responsible calls for a basic shift in approach, not incremental change. (Btw, I agree with Jonathan that movements can be destructive, if they're just playing to a base. Issues like gay marriage, right to life, etc just polarize.)
But there's another dimension to our difference here—outside versus inside. Everyone wants better leadership, but some of us think that we need better outside accountability to keep leaders from being, shall we say, overly accommodating to special interests. Bill Galston sort of made this point in distinguishing between more visible and less visible issues, although he seems to be in the inside camp.
As we enter our third day, it would be enlightening to hear what, if anything, each of you would recommend to help the new president succeed in making needed changes.
Posted September 11, 2008, 6:31pm
Predicting incremental change in the U.S. political system, with its elaborate checks and balances, is usually a safe bet. Yet there are those moments of punctuated equilibrium when old political arrangements suddenly give way to new ones. The Progressives, for example, didn't just push economic and social reforms, they knew that for those reforms to advance they'd also have to break the stranglehold of special (big business in those days) interests and party machines. So they also pressed for political reforms: direct election of Senators, initiative and referendum, recall of elected officials, etc.
We may be on the cusp of another such pivotal moment. Public anger at the way the political game is played is palpable. It's why even incumbents run against Washington, why "Washington experience" is more curse than blessing for candidates, and why Obama and McCain are fighting so hard to convince the country that they are the real agent of change. What's missing is a political reform agenda aimed at redressing the imbalance in private and public power in Washington and restoring political competition. I used to be skeptical of public financing but now see no other way to achieve the first objective. As to the second, Congress has the power to regulate its own redistricting. Requiring states to use independent commissions to draw lines (perhaps with political competitiveness as a criteria along with traditional redistricting principles) would break up the incumbency racket and push back against the forces of polarization Bill Galston mentioned earlier.
I'm all for center-out coalition-building, and bipartisan commissions can raise public consciousness and give reform-minded presidents cover, but we also need structural renovations in American democracy.
Posted September 11, 2008, 10:04am
I am also a believer in the need for political reform—and tend to agree with Will Marshall that we are on the cusp of a reform movement in the nation. There has been some evidence of this dating back to Perot's remarkable showing in 1992. McCain and/or Obama may be able to lead—or at least temporarily satisfy—this movement once in office, as both of them are increasingly articulating the message (and imperative) of change. They could do so in a variety of ways as I discussed earlier (appointing a bipartisan Cabinet, empowering the centrists in Congress, strengthening our ethics policies and enforcement, reining in pork-barrel politics).
However, more fundamental reform is needed, much like those systemic reforms of the Progressive era. Increasingly, I see the need to restrict the role of big money in politics—whether from PACS, or bundled by trial attorneys and other wealthy professionals. I am not, however, inclined to view public funding of campaigns as the solution. The movement at the turn of the twentieth century included a few constitutional amendments that changed politics irreversibly—and for the better (direct election of senators, endorsement of the income tax, granting women the vote). What about an amendment that would restrict campaign donations to ONLY real voters within the candidate's own state? I am also favorably inclined toward Reapportionment Commissions as the only way to remove the political influence (incumbent protection and political party gerrymandering) that dominates the process today. Too few districts are competitive any longer—and that leads to elections that are dominated by the most extremes forces. Legislators from safe districts have no incentive to reach across the aisle in search of solutions because they represent districts where the other point of view is such a small segment of their constituency.
Posted September 11, 2008, 10:32am
I am a big fan of cleverness, so kudos to Jonathan Rauch on “Movements may be the enemy of movement.” Well played. Obviously, Public Agenda disagrees. (And I think a few folks in the Civil Rights community might, too)
Incrementalism is better than no movement at all, but I agree with William Galston that vision and large-scale citizen involvement can take place at the same time as small reforms. In fact, it is very possible that systematic engagement of the American people could come out on the other side of the process with only an endorsement of incremental change.
Public Agenda’s work on the Facing Up to the Nation’s Finances initiative is instructive. We have been talking to the American people in community dialogues about Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, federal debt, tax/revenue generation and the other big factors associated with America’s looming fiscal crisis. On an issue like health care, they have a hard time dealing with reigning in the costs of Medicare/Medicaid because they jump right to wanting to reforming the whole health care system without having consensus on what that wholesale change would be. But on Social Security, they are able to come to general consensus on issues like gradually raising the retirement age, adjusting FICA income caps and other measures. While AARP might fight against those types of changes, it is possible that widespread acknowledgment of the public’s endorsement of those measures could tip the balance in favor of legislators actually taking responsibility and making those changes. But right now, we don’t have a substantial way of gaining legitimized public input on specific public policy proposals.
That said, I want to re-emphasize a point I made earlier: The new President and Congress need to demonstrate early that they can make progress and make compromise on at least one big issue. The "win" will definitely need to demonstrate bipartisanship at work for the public's confidence to start to take hold.
The President and Congress should fix Social Security first to build public confidence before moving on to tackle the much harder job of fixing health care.
Posted September 11, 2008, 10:37am
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll continue to insist that polarization is a bigger obstacle to effective government than are self-interest and corruption. For example: while I too favor more neutral reapportionment commissions, a careful Brookings study has shown that congressional district boundaries account for only a small portion of the increased partisan divisions in the House over the past three decades. Far more significant is the fact that like-minded people are more inclined to live together than they once were, so that the number of counties with supermajorities for one party or the other has surged. You’d actually need to gerrymander districts to break up the geographical contiguity of the like-minded. Our study also shows that red states have gotten redder, and blues bluer, during this period, a trend that leads me to view with some skepticism the idea that campaign contributions should be restricted to in-state residents. That’s a formula for perpetuating quasi-monopolies
Posted September 11, 2008, 10:57am
I've made the case for redistricting reform to make races more competitive, and for public financing of campaigns (provided it's a voluntary system). But I tend to think the effects, albeit worthwhile, would be on the margins (thanks to Bill G. for explaining one of the main reasons).
The process isn't the problem; the problem is the problem. And the problem is that we live in a different world today than the Progressives did. They didn't have 500 or however many different farm groups all defending their programs and angling for their cut in Washington—and that's just the farm lobbies. American society itself, not just politics, is much more heavily encumbered with interest groups, and they command influence via votes and passion, not just (or even, imho, mainly) money.
So I've always emphasized that, longer-term, what works is a persistent effort to expose the interest groups to competition by cutting their subsidies, pitting them against each other, and keeping the economy and society open to trade and new technologies and people.
In other words, I think the kinds of substantive reforms that Will Marshall, among others, has so steadfastly advocated over the years are the main remedy for sclerosis. It's like diet and exercise. Undramatic and unglamorous, especially compared to the kind of grandstanding we're seeing from our candidates this year. But it works.
Memo to Ruth W: Your discussion groups are right on point. Social Security isn't very hard. It's going to get done. Health care is a whole different ballgame. Much, much tougher to solve. No movement will be effective until we have more agreement on what to do.
Posted September 11, 2008, 12:01pm
Regarding what a new President should do, how about raising public expectations that the President should 1) appoint a bipartisan cabinet; 2) stop gerrymandering of congressional districts; 3) meet more regularly with congressional leaders; 4) persuade the Speaker to be the Speaker of the whole House, not an enhanced Majority Leader; 5) nominate less ideological judges, etc.?
Posted September 11, 2008, 12:52pm
Sorry for a belated entry; I am in Europe and out of sync. One initial comment, following Tim Penny, on the next generation of campaign finance reform. If we restricted donations to the state of the contestants, imagine what would happen in small, poor states like North Dakota or, dare I say, Alaska? The advantages to multimillionaires in those states or their districts would be even greater than they are now, and with a Supreme Court rejecting even the Millionaire's Amendment that did not restrict individual spending but provided incentives for non-rich candidates (using, I might add, bizarre logic), it would skew the system even further. A better way to go, I believe, given the new opportunities on the Internet, is to have serious incentives, via matching funds (two or three to one) for candidates to raise money in small amounts, once they pass a threshold to show they are real candidates, combined with a generous tax credit for small donors. Not everyone can be Barack Obama, but many congressional candidates could do extraordinarily well with appropriate incentives on both sides, and reduce the need or incentive to rely on bigger donors, bundlers or to shake down lobbyists. The point on redistricting commissions is powerful; John Tanner's bill on this subject is an excellent start.
Posted September 11, 2008, 1:11pm
Thanks, Jim, for your list of concrete ideas. My idea, along the lines of bipartisan commissions, is that the new President affirmatively solicits long-term perspectives, and engages the public on that level. I am personally interested in helping to organize a coalition of coalitions that would strive to build public support for overhaul of certain areas.
As I asked yesterday, it would be interesting to know what everyone here would recommend to help the new President succeed in making needed changes.
Posted September 11, 2008, 1:30pm
I concur with Norm's suggestion regarding a generous tax credit for small donors. Capped at a reasonable level, such a credit (which was sadly repealed at the federal level in the mid-eighties) would make it easier for candidates to secure broad-based financing for their campaigns. My personal preference would be to combine this with my proposal for a constitutional amendment. But is the right idea, in any event. Here in Minnesota, we do have a modest tax credit for state level candidates. It works quite well and is responsible (in part) for the fact that we seem to attract competitive candidates in most all of our state legislative districts.
Posted September 11, 2008, 1:45pm
I believe that we need to engage in a range of dramatic and fundamental reforms that will have to be enacted over time. The reforms need to include policy, organizational, operational and political changes. In my view, we need to consider at least three political reforms. First, to reform the way that redistricting is handled in order to make Congressional districts more competitive, and incumbents less ideological and more accountable. To engage in additional campaign finance reforms (e.g., limiting the amount of donations that can be received from a person or entity who cannot vote for the candidate to 15% of total contributions, or pursuing public financing). Possibly impose an 18-year term limit on U.S. Senators and Congresspersons. They could still be career politicians but not in the same job. To get this done, you could not start the clock until after enactment of the limit. At least two of these would require a Constitutional Amendment to stick. That can be done through the traditional route or via a Constitutional convention. We may ultimately need one to address this and selected fiscal and other issues.
Posted September 11, 2008, 2:07pm
There are some excellent process reform ideas being discussed here. I would add two more: ballot access reform to facilitate increased participation by candidates who are not members of the two major parties; and congressional committee reform, to break the power the parties and committee chairmen have over their members.
Posted September 11, 2008, 2:52am
My advice for the new President: since neither candidate has executive branch experience, both need extensive tutoring in how the bureaucracy works or doesn't work, with case studies like one comparing JFK's disaster at the Bay of Pigs with his triumph in the Cuban missile crisis. Another case study could explain how recent White Houses have tended to live in bubbles isolated from the rest of the government and often ignorant of what is going on down below until a scandal develops. This could be contrasted with the insatiable curiosity of an FDR who not only established the budget bureau—now the OMB—to act as his eyes and ears but used people he respected outside the chain of command—his wife and her friend Lorena Hickok are examples—to find out how federal programs were actually performing. The basic problem here is that bureaucracies have a strong tendency to gild lilies and conceal bad news.
As I pointed out yesterday, nothing the new President will do is more important than selecting the right people to run the various agencies and to serve on the White House staff. In the way he carries himself in public and in the way he deals with subordinates privately, he must make them proud to serve. Indeed, the more he can imbue citizens with pride in serving the country, in subordinating their own interests to what is best for the nation, the more likely he will become a great President.
Posted September 11, 2008, 3:20pm
I've been thinking more about Phil's question: "what, if anything, each of you would recommend to help the new president succeed in making needed changes." In the spirit of my earlier post (substantive reform matters more than process reform), I've got a three-letter answer:
A big multilateral trade agreement (under World Trade Organization auspices) increases the competitive pressure on thousands of interest groups in hundreds of industries across dozens of countries. It reduces the subsidies that sustain the groups—voracious agriculture lobbies, for instance—and exposes them to withering competition.
I understand there are problems with any particular deal, and any agreement made by 153 countries representing 95 percent of world trade is going to be imperfect. But the Doha Round is a golden opportunity—and I'm thinking now of the political benefits even more than the economic ones. What a shame if it were to slip away.
Posted September 11, 2008, 3:38pm
Jonathan’s got a great idea with WTO and I vote for the free trade agreements. But I am in a rapidly shrinking minority. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 2/3 of Republicans are now protectionist. Needless to say, Clinton could not pass NAFTA today. The elites who understand economics have not translated this to the average citizen: $1 trillion in annual trade benefits to the U.S. v. $50 billion in economic dislocation, all remedied with $2 billion in remedial trade assistance (which we’ve now allowed to expire). The tragedy is that you are much more likely to get elected today if you vote like an F student in economics.
Posted September 11, 2008, 4:03pm
Jonathan makes an important point. We’re not going to break the gridlock on trade, however, until we do something to help the many people who are losing ground in the new economy. It’s not enough to say that trade promotes growth, reduces subsidies, and attacks protected interests; we need a new social compact that devotes some of the gains from trade to compensating, not entrenched special interests, but the ordinary Americans who are experiencing falling incomes and rising insecurity.
As for advice to the new president, I’m on the same wavelength as Jim Cooper: non-token numbers of bipartisan appointments to senior positions in the administration; frequent, meaningful consultations with congressional leaders of both parties; and a process for both major policy initiatives and important nominations that ups the odds of cooperation across party lines, and between the executive and legislative branches. It’s up to the next president to set the tone.
Posted September 11, 2008, 4:09pm
To pick up on Phillip’s question—what do we recommend to help the new President achieve needed reforms—the leadership should come both from the President and government and from outside to build demand and momentum for reform.
The President has to set the bipartisan, public interested, results-oriented tone by, as Tim Penny said, appointing a bipartisan cabinet and visibly reaching out to Congressional leaders, and also create excitement by bringing the right people into the key appointed positions and calling talented young people to serve in government. The political/process reform agenda is critical to sustain relevant, bipartisan, public interested actions and accountability. Reforms like redistricting, campaign finance reform, congressional committee reform are the toughest, turfiest, some would say impossible goals to achieve in decades, much less four years or even eight. The public, which is looking for tangible improvements in their own lives and others will not react well to these reforms unless health care, jobs, education, energy, national security are pragmatically addressed right up front. No one will take the hill for redistricting reform, a new congressional committee structure, or even a balanced budget, but they will get excited about controlling health care cost or better education for their kids, etc.
Momentum is important so I would say take on health care reform (social security is easier but less urgent), education (incentives to recruit and keep great teachers), and start an initiative to promote innovative energy solutions. Of course, national security and the economy will be priorities. The President could also lay down the gauntlet, commit himself and challenge congressional leaders, the coalition of organizations Phillip Howard advocates, and the public to pursue and win an ambitious reform agenda. He could lay out the principles and possibilities of reform and establish a strong bipartisan group to bring proposals to him and the Congress.
From the outside, mobilizing the public around health care and changing Washington and holding the President and Congressional leaders accountable for action and actual progress in these and other areas would be a great contribution. It’s the how that’s hard.
Posted September 11, 2008, 4:14pm
I too like the WTO idea. (NewTalk next will take on worker dislocation, in part, from globalization, where I think there needs to be safety nets).
So far we also have some constitutional suggestions such as term limits, more focus on outside accountability, a tutorial for the new president on bureaucratic inertia and self-interest, more campaign finance, focus on incrementalism, focus on big shifts, better leadership about the need for short term sacrifice, and better leadership generally.
Several of you have also mentioned the media. What could the media do better to support better leadership?
Posted September 11, 2008, 4:17pm
Regarding advocacy for free(er) trade: I've always wondered why Bob Litan's idea didn't catch on—explain that protectionism is a tax increase.
Posted September 11, 2008, 4:27pm
It is critically important that the next President have a capable, credible and coalition cabinet comprised of members of both major parties as well as independents. It may also be appropriate for the candidates to name some of their top cabinet picks before the election. This may be particularly important for Senator Obama given concerns about his limited experience as compared to past major Presidential candidates.
Re: Philip’s latest question: The media needs to focus more on substance and less on nonsense. This country faces major challenges and it's time the media started to focus on them in more depth.
Posted September 11, 2008, 5:45pm
I'm about to run out to a meeting, and want to thank all of you for participating. The topic of how to lead needed changes is as elusive as it is important. I was struck by the difference in perspectives—from the realpolitik of Jonathan and Bill G. to the hope for big shifts by others of us. No one had a magic bullet, except maybe WTO. Bipartisan leadership seemed like a constructive demand for the new President (although 43 promised bipartisanship and gave us the opposite). A bipartisan cabinet would certainly be a new phenomenon. Some of us, I know, are going to try to take our case for reform to the public. So if you happen to get the next President’s ear, please speak up. Thanks again.
Posted September 12, 2008, 10:57am
Let me weigh in one more time. First, Jim Cooper is right in so many ways. I have talked to several principled conservative House Republicans like Mike Pence; I believe that a bargain where the House majority leadership agrees to give Republicans real opportunities in committee and on the floor to offer real amendments and to have real debate, in return for an end to silly "gotcha" ploys like phony motions to recommit designed only to embarrass or kill bills, not to offer real minority alternatives, could work. Second, we desperately need to reform the nomination and confirmation process for presidential appointees, to get the new administration actually up and running, with the top one or two hundred key appointments in national security and economic issues ready to be confirmed in late January or early February, not six to nine months after that.
Some changes can be done by President Bush by executive order; others need the open commitment of the two presidential candidates to get ready to govern now, not wait until November or do it surreptitiously; others require the commitment of Senate leaders to do more than Cabinet confirmation hearings in December and early January.