Hapless Haphazardness

Timothy B. Clark

We have it today, and probably tomorrow.

All the hand-wringing and knee-jerk responses to the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in August served to underscore our country's lamentably haphazard approach to governance.

Sen. Hillary Clinton rushed to the ramparts with a $10 billion plan to repair deficient bridges. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, proposed to raise $40 billion for bridges by temporarily raising taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel and imported oil. Ranking committee Republican John Mica of Florida called that a "Band-Aid approach," noting that Oberstar's proposal would do nothing about deteriorating highways, ports, airports and rail systems. Meantime, the Los Angeles Times noted that California lawmakers have had difficulty securing the federal funds to shore up the state's aging levees, even in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. And The New York Times recalled that the latest federal transportation law included no fewer than 6,000 earmarks, "blatant gifts to chosen districts."

No question about it, many a Congress member would rather cut a ribbon on a new project than see the money disappear into the black hole of maintenance. One might ask: Where is the planning or the long-range vision one would need to ensure a sensible and stable transportation network?

Mica said of the Oberstar bridge proposal: "It's like owning an 80-year-old house that has serious problems with the plumbing, the heating, the foundation and a leaking roof, and saying you're going to fix the driveway." His correct complaint about neglect of the nation's transportation infrastructure coins a nice metaphor for government as a whole.

It's mighty hard to divine much coherence in what's now happening in Washington, or in presidential candidates' vision of the future. Congress has put most of government on a senseless continuing resolution for this fiscal year and will not meet its promise of enacting routine appropriations bills in time for the beginning of fiscal 2008. Not one of them has passed the Senate, the White House is threatening vetoes of House-passed measures, and there's a very good prospect that a lot of government again will be stuck with a continuing resolution for 2008. Agencies can't plan, won't commit to new projects and are cutting the pace of ongoing modernization efforts.

Not to pick on Clinton, but a centerpiece of her government reform plan appears to be cutting the contractor workforce by 500,000 people. She seems to think that can be done without cutting back on agency missions. Rudy Giuliani's approach is worse. He thinks he can reform government by not replacing half the people who retire over the next eight years. John McCain, at least, would tie staffing and funding to an assessment of programmatic performance.

This campaign sloganeering places form over substance. With these and other proposals, the candidates tinker around the edges of government, offering little that's new. They do not suggest, as they should, that government follow Comptroller General David M. Walker's proposal for a top-to-bottom review of federal activities, to "update programs and policies to meet current and future challenges." Once nominees are chosen, we could see a more disciplined set of ideas for change, but I wouldn't count on any kind of headlong retreat from our current state of hapless haphazardness.

Tim Signature
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