Political posturing hampers debt deal talks, says government reform scholar

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"A cloud of cowardly behavior and political posturing" hangs over the current budget talks between President Obama congressional leaders, according to Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University whose recent proposals for a major reorganization of government come at a time he calls a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to do the hard work."

The summer's political drama over cutting the budget deficit before raising the debt ceiling is "driven not by courageous stands on issues but by cowardice, a desire for political credit, positioning for 2012, focus groups spinning ideas and polling," Light said.

He spoke Monday morning to an audience of mostly federal employees at Government Executive's 15th Excellence in Government Conference, this one titled, Human Capital: Managing in a Cutback Climate.

Light implored the various good government groups, such as the Partnership for Public Service and those in the defunct Council for Excellence in Government, to come together to form a coalition and create a voice. "There's a need to scrape away the bureaucratic sclerosis that has prevented federal employees from doing their jobs," he said. "Most federal employees work miracles every day, but there is this useless micromanagement and a sediment of junk so that we never get rid of anything."

While decrying mistrust of government in this era of "hyper-polarization," Light noted that such divisiveness has occurred in periodic cycles as far back as 1801. That year President Jefferson declared war on government waste, but then, after making the Louisiana Purchase, proceeded to staff the federal land bureau.

As a model for how the current budget stalemate should be resolved, Light pointed to the 1983 Social Security reform agreement. That's when President Reagan; House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, D-Mass.; and key lawmakers such as Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan.; Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.; and House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., "were willing to set aside their political interests in the interest of the country," Light said.

If Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, command such authority to negotiate, he continued, they should meet "perhaps at Blair House, drop the cellphones at the door, and forget about Twitter." The two should "watch some baseball or some women's soccer to create some camaraderie," he added. Then they might agree on such things as raising the Social Security retirement age and the payroll tax, accelerate some tax increases and tax some benefits. It would be, Light said, "a package of pain" that in the long run would spare the nation suffering.

Light mocked Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for taking a "sabbatical" from the so-called Gang of Six budget talks and pinned his hopes on Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to be the deal maker.

Addressing the federal workplace, Light lamented the drop off in interest in federal careers, telling the executives "this is not your fault, it's not even partially your fault."

Despite efforts over the years to share stories of government success (nearly all of what he has previously listed as the top 25 successes are now in peril, he said), the public is influenced by the news media's priorities and pays more attention to the "breakdowns." Examples he gave included the response to Hurricane Katrina, the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the firing of U.S. attorneys in the George W. Bush administration, allowing the Christmas Day would-be airline bomber to board his plane, the faulty inspections that resulted in the grounding of Southwest Airlines' 737s, not earlier uncovering Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, and the Gulf oil spill.

"The warnings were not passed up the line," Light said, in part because "the front lines of government have been decimated" by an attrition-based hiring freeze that leaves greater numbers at the top of the hierarchy.

"Polls do show the American people do not want the government to be dismantled," he added. "They think it has the right priorities but is inefficient, and they want faithful execution of the laws."

Within many agencies, Light said, leadership is broken, performance ratings are not seen as fair and managers are not encouraged to innovate. Such findings in the Office of Personnel Management's Employee Viewpoint Survey are "fundamentally troubling" given the agencies' great missions, he said.

Light summarized his government overhaul plan, which he says could save $1 trillion, using the themes of accountability, effectiveness and productivity. In a tongue-twister, he ridiculed the title inflation that adds deputies to senior assistants to principles to assistant-assistant secretaries. "You're nobody without a chief of staff," he said.

In pursuing his vision of a flatter but still highly performing government, Light would steer away from head count thinking, rejecting the "blunt ax proposals" to reduce the workforce espoused by some House Republicans, and instead backing a set replacement ratio to shrink the federal workforce. A better way to reduce, Light said, would be to keep every vacancy for six months so that observers could see whether it's really needed, a proposal inspired by management theorist Peter Drucker. Only when the president or the Office of Management and Budget or OPM certified it would the job be filled.

Light criticized the Obama administration for a reorganization plan that has begun by focusing only on the export and trade agencies.

Implementing his wider reforms, Light said, would require a central authority that would not likely be OMB (with some 50 staffers, too small, he said) or the Government Accountability Office (also downsized in recent years). He proposes creating an independent authority that would present reforms to Congress for a vote, similar in structure to the Resolution Trust Corporation that successfully sold off failed savings and loans after the 1980s crisis in that industry.

The chances for his reforms going forward, Light said, he'd put at only 20 percent.

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