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Former Cabinet Secretaries Decry Lack of Leadership

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Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the National Press Club in 2012. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the National Press Club in 2012. Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock.com

Bemoaning a “dysfunctional” Washington, two former Cabinet members on Tuesday implored Congress to tackle the tough decisions of annual spending and curbing deficits by returning to “regular order.”

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell —both former White House budget directors—expressed longing for the days when lawmakers passed spending bills on time and negotiated budgets and policy in committees with actual experts and “analysis and [discussion about] the tradeoffs,” as Burwell put it.

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The two came to the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington to receive the Elliot L. Richardson Prize organized by the National Academy of Public Administration. As panelists, they deconstructed what ails the government during skeptical questioning from conservative commentator George F. Will.

“This town is fundamentally dysfunctional,” Panetta said. “In a democracy, we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If the leadership is not there, we govern by crisis,” he said, adding that “Today, we’re governing by crisis.”

The reason the American people have lost trust in government’s effectiveness, said Burwell—now president of American University—is “a lack of understanding of the role government plays in people’s lives.” That became clear during the 2013 government shutdown, she said. Her biggest concern is the unwillingness to take on debt and deficits. When Congress falls back continually on continuing resolutions, it wreaks havoc with agencies trying to manage, she added. “The Defense Department people told me, ‘Give me less money but give me certainty.’”

The good news, said Panetta, who now runs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Marina, Calif., is that “I’ve seen Washington work.” Back in the 1990s “Republicans and Democrats could sit down in a room to resolve issues and were willing to govern the country,” he said. But in today’s world of gerrymandered congressional districts, politicians’ dependence on fundraising and the 24-hour conflict-ridden media coverage, “Congress kicks the can down the road, and the price to be paid is the loss of trust of the American people,” he said.

“Politically, no one is willing to tell the American people they have to sacrifice.” Panetta said. “The easy way to survive is when you don’t need to make tough decisions—cutting programs or raising taxes—just wait for a crisis.”

The absence of leadership today also means politicians are “looking for magic solutions”—a balanced budget amendment, or giving the president a legislative veto, he added. “But there’s no magic here, it’s nuts and bolts.” Addressing politicians, Panetta said, “You’re not elected to save your rear end, but to make tough decisions.” And unless the president is willing to make that kind of effort,” Panetta said, “we will fall behind.”

Panetta is the only winner of the Richardson award to have served in every capacity claimed by the past award winners, the hosts noted. He served in Congress, as White House budget director, White House chief of staff, Defense Secretary and CIA director.

The award, formerly run by the Center for Excellence in Government, has been handled within NAPA since 2009. It comes with a cash award, and winners are encouraged to donate half to charity.

Image via Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock.com.

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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