Constraints on Change

Two scholars assess the state of the federal system.

One might hope this year's election will bring new beginnings: a fresh look at the programs, structures and policies of the U.S. government. Indeed, this is what the last three candidates seemed to promise, at least for a while: Barack Obama's unity pitch, Hillary Clinton's first-ever woman's perspective and John McCain's famous streak of independence.

The promise of renewal has faded a bit as the long campaign has induced candidates to programmatic commitments that could tie their hands. But even if voters were to choose Obama, arguably the candidate least attached to current policies, he would find a government highly resistant to change and ill-equipped to deliver on today's responsibilities.

That conclusion is powerfully reinforced by two new books by leading scholars of public administration: Alasdair Roberts' The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government (New York University Press), and Paul C. Light's A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It (Harvard University Press).

In the world after Sept. 11, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney sought and achieved "what was said to be an unprecedented and dangerous concentration of executive authority," writes Roberts, a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. But he views this popular story line as false; and writes that events since 2001 are more accurately seen as exposing "weakness in institutions [and] systems of government."

"Important constraints on the exercise of authority- institutional, political, cultural and economic- continued to operate in the five years after the 9/11 attacks," Roberts writes. The Patriot Act, the bane of civil libertarians, was substantially reined back after its enactment. Guantanamo Bay, torture, CIA "renditions" and other war-on-terror controversies were thoroughly aired and constrained. The Homeland Security Department, forced by Congress on a reluctant president, was poorly organized and underfunded "from day one," as he shows in detail. Regulatory initiatives to lessen the vulnerability to terrorism of chemical plants and other infrastructure were blocked or weakened.

What Roberts calls U.S. "neomilitarism" offered the administration an escape from weakness at home. The military, unlike the rest of government, is well-regarded by the public, so it could be deployed not only to make war, but also to assume roles in diplomacy, the drug trade, illegal immigration and more. In Roberts' contrarian view, the president's reliance on the military is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Focusing on the structure, funding and staffing of the government, New York University professor Light presents his argument in seven parts. He notes that government has continued to take on missions, even as tax cuts deprive it of the resources to succeed. Meantime, accountability is diffused by hierarchies that obfuscate clarity of command. Leadership is weakened by nomination and confirmation processes that deter and exhaust potential appointees. The existing workforce, frustrated and unable to keep its brightest lights, seems as interested in pay and security as in other facets of their jobs. Government is both "losing the talent war" and facing "enormous problems holding the recruits it attracts." A plethora of "management reforms" has undermined steadiness in administration. And finally, government's reliance on millions of private sector employees raises questions of accountability while also hiding the true size of the federal endeavor.

Light concludes with a comprehensive menu of reforms, but writes that an independent commission, with recommendations subjected to an up-or-down vote by Congress, would be needed to achieve them.

Such outsourcing of fundamental policy would not come easily to a new president and our seniority-bound Congress. But other thoughtful observers of government have endorsed such a move, and it's worthy of consideration given the difficulties our government faces.

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