The Politics of Reform

Both Democrats in the Clinton Administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill like the idea of a government that works better and costs less. But when it comes to the particulars of reinventing government, there is still a fairly wide gulf between the two parties, a freewheeling "reinvention crossfire" session at the Reinvention Revolution Conference in Bethesda, Md., on Wednesday showed.

At the session, Elaine Kamarck, senior policy adviser to Vice President Gore, argued that the Clinton Administration was the first to make administrative reforms a key part of its agenda. "Finally there's a presidency that cares about the management of government," she said.

But Ned Lynch, a staffer on the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on the civil service, contended that Republican presidents laid the groundwork for current reforms by starting total quality management efforts in various agencies. "The idea that all this happened in the last four years is as close to hogwash as possible," he said.

Other participants in the session included Donald Kettl, director of the LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and James P. Pinkerton, a former Bush Administration official who is now a columnist for Newsday.

Kamarck said that the biggest obstacle the Clinton administration has encountered in its reinvention effort so far is a lack of enthusiasm on the part of its own political appointees. Lynch countered that in his experience, political appointees are among the most committed reformers, while career federal managers often fight to protect their bureaucratic turf.

Differences in legislative strategy also emerged in the session. Kamarck indicated the administration would like to see not only a broad-based civil service reform bill passed this year (similar to one that passed the House last year but was never taken up in the Senate), but separate pieces of legislation authorizing the creation of a series of performance-based organizations (PBOs).

Lynch said that while it might be possible to get the civil service bill through the House and over to the Senate again, "I doubt we would be able to get nine or 10 or 16 PBO bills through the Senate." Besides, he argued, the PBO bills "are too timid in a lot of regards."

Such partisanship aside, Kamarck said the White House and Republican leaders have so far managed to bridge their differences on key reinvention issues. When the administration has pushed reforms on Capitol Hill, Republicans have supported them, Kamarck said. "We've got as many problems coming from other Democrats as from the Republicans."

Besides, Kamarck said, "There are so many problems in government that we in the executive branch have created all by ourselves. Congress can go to sleep for three years and we could still make big progress in improving government."

All of the participants in the discussion agreed on the importance of properly implementing the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. Congressional leaders, said Lynch, are "eager to get some kind of effective oversight" through GPRA.

The participants also agreed that government must step up the pace of reform to avoid the perception that it is forever lagging behind the private sector. "Government has to stop adopting private sector reforms at the very point they have proved not workable there," said Kettl.

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