Excellence: More or Less?

States offer reality check on how much government people want.

If excellence in government is the goal people seek, then how can one measure whether we have it now, or we are getting closer as time goes by?

There's no easy answer to that question, and, of course, it depends on whom you ask. Academics, think tanks, congressional overseers and members of the media are inclined to take a positive view, realizing that government takes on the hardest tasks and often performs well despite resource constraints and political opposition. Two examples: the great strides the Health and Human Services Department has made to implement the controversial health care reform law, and the Census Bureau's management of the 2010 count, which has received favorable after-action reviews by conservative Republicans in Congress.

But people whose livelihoods are directly affected by federal action often take a dim view of government's reach. That was the case this summer in Maine among the maritime industries. "What Does It Take to Get Fired at NOAA?" screamed a red-ink headline in the August edition of Fishermen's Voice, a newspaper covering the state's fishing industry. The newspaper recounted bitter complaints about enforcement of fishing restrictions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and deep concerns about the National Marine Fisheries Service's initiative to protect whales by reducing the number of vertical lines connecting surface buoys to lobster pots on the ocean floor.

In the simplistic language of partisan debate, "excellence" often is de­fined as less government, or more government. Just what that means is rarely specified. But this year, advocates of smaller government have been getting a reality check as many states cut spending. Education programs are being "eviscerated," writes Governing magazine's founder and publisher emeritus, Peter Harkness, an expert on state and local government trends. School districts already have been cutting what will total 250,000 teachers and staff positions, he notes. Class sizes are growing, and state university systems are cutting back while raising tuition by up to 20 percent.

Including teachers, public safety employees, social workers and others, layoffs since August 2008 have totaled more than 550,000, climbing to perhaps 800,000. Bitter opposition to such developments has emerged in states like Wisconsin, where recall elections were launched against Republican legislators. The federal government has so far avoided much retrenchment, although the Army recently unveiled plans to eliminate 8,700 civilian positions in the next year and other agencies are reducing staff in minor increments.

Maine lobstermen and others who have specific beefs with federal authority would likely be among the 50 percent of Americans who say they want a smaller government providing fewer services.

The figure comes from a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press, which also reported that 42 percent of citizens would rather have a bigger government providing more services. A majority (55 percent) also says the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, compared with 39 percent who think that government often does a better job than people give it credit for. On government regulation of business, 47 percent say it's necessary to protect the public interest, while 45 percent believe it usually does more harm than good.

The battle about size is fought by every president and every Congress. President Clinton famously declared in January 1996 that "the era of big government is over." That wasn't so, as Government Executive's Tom Shoop predicted in a May 1996 cover story headlined "Not Dead Yet!"

In constant (2005) dollars, spending in Clinton's last term averaged a bit less than $2 trillion, a figure set to grow to $3.5 trillion in 2016 under Obama's latest budget. Just last month, in his address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama attacked the anti-government orthodoxy that holds that "the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, re­fund everyone's money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own."

Yet Obama made a big concession on regulation in September when he blocked an ambitious ozone rule pro­posed on his watch by the Environmental Protection Agency. And he seems increasingly willing to shave the huge entitlement programs that drive federal government's long-term debt problems.

Does the public really think that less government would be more excellent? With reaction to retrenchment in state and local spending as a leading indicator, we will find out soon enough, as deficits and debt drive the debate about government's size.

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