The Challenger: What would Kerry do?

By Jason Peckenpaugh

July 2, 2004

This month in Boston, the Democratic Party will nominate a presidential candidate who has spent a career defending, protesting and investigating the government he now seeks to lead.

In 1971, John Kerry burst onto the national stage as a long-haired Vietnam veteran at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, blasting politicians who, he said, had "attempted to disown us and the sacrifice we made for this country." In the late 1970s, as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Mass., he rolled up his sleeves as a manager, quadrupling the number of lawyers in his office and snaring millions of dollars in Justice Department grants. As a U.S. senator, Kerry has focused on governmental wrongdoing, leading one of the first investigations into the Iran-contra affair, in the late 1980s.

Still, as he girds for battle with George W. Bush, the first president to hold an MBA, relatively little is known about Kerry's philosophy of government, or his views on management. Ten months into his presidential campaign, Kerry has yet to articulate a vision regarding the role of the federal government, or lay out a comprehensive plan for managing the federal bureaucracy.

This may be partly by design. Instead of unveiling a single government reform plan, Kerry aides say the Massachusetts Democrat has woven management reforms into his overall platform. "It's a thread that goes into other policy announcements made during the course of the campaign," says Robert Gordon, Kerry's domestic policy director. In an April speech on reducing the budget deficit, Kerry proposed cutting 100,000 federal contractors and putting a lid on agencies' travel budgets. He tucked a pledge to slash "out-of-control administrative costs" at federal agencies into an August 2003 speech on job creation. It may take a little scrounging to find Kerry's government reform plan, but his supporters say it's there.

Kerry aides hint that more reforms are in the works. In early June, the campaign began recruiting management experts to staff a Reinventing Government and Management Reform advisory group, one of several outside panels advising the campaign. The group, which held its first meeting June 15, is led by Paul Weinstein, a domestic policy veteran of the Clinton White House; he helped draft Clinton's 1993 executive order calling on agencies to cut 100,000 federal jobs. Weinstein says the advisers will craft management proposals that are consistent with Kerry's views. "We'll also look at those ideas that have been put forward so far and try to put some more meat on them," he says.

More meat would please government reform experts, who say Kerry's initial ideas don't add up to much of a management agenda. "It's not really a plan in any sense," says Donald Kettl, a public administration expert at the University of Wisconsin. "It's a loosely cobbled collection of ideas." Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University, says Kerry has "some distance to go to put together an integrated management agenda that might address some of the big problems that the federal government faces today." Even some Clinton-era management veterans are underwhelmed by Kerry's plans. "That's pretty thin soup," says Bob Stone, who helped run Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government effort. "I'm sure the Kerry camp will have some better ideas."

But in an election expected to turn on the Bush administration's Iraq policy, terrorism and economic issues, some ob-servers say federal management, never a top concern of most voters, is unlikely to garner much attention. "Reinventing government in that context is not only a 'B' issue, but it's a 'C' or 'D' issue in terms of political attention," says Peter Kant, a Kerry fund-raiser who served in the Agriculture Department under Clinton. Asked if Kerry would give a speech on government reform, Jason Furman, a Kerry economic staffer, says, "There's not one being planned right now. I think it's more likely that you'll see bits and pieces of it here and there."

With no obvious constituency for government reform, presidential candidates face little outside pressure to unveil a management agenda. As Kettl notes, "There are probably only 20 to 30 of us who expect a management plan." Gore and Bush both rolled out plans in 2000, but some observers attribute that to the management-savvy staffers on their campaign staffs. Gore's domestic policy director was Elaine Kamarck, the architect of his reinventing government initiative, while Bush had management whiz Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis, to churn out reform ideas. In April 2000, Kamarck and Goldsmith even held a genteel debate on government reform. The Kerry campaign has no such management expert in a senior policy job.

In presidential campaigns, management proposals also have symbolic value; they are a metaphor for how a candidate views government. In 1992, Bill Clinton sat down with the editorial board of USA Today to discuss government reform, an issue that helped burnish his credentials as a moderate New Democrat, says Stone. Some Democrats think Bush stole the government reform issue from Gore in 2000 by eschewing anti-government rhetoric and talking about how electronic government and faith-based groups could improve the delivery of government services.

"I actually believe that one of the reasons Gore lost was because he ran away from this issue and he presented a meta-theme of big government, where Bush presented a meta-theme of a smaller, more efficient government," says Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a New Democrat think tank. Atkinson, a member of the Kerry management advisory group, says Kerry should lay out his vision of government in the 21st century. "He needs to convince the public that they can trust him to not simply be an old big-government style liberal that wants to simply shore up the bureaucracy."

A large-scale reform plan also could help Kerry pick a political fight with Bush over management issues. "I think you can argue [Bush] has mismanaged a number of agencies," says Light, who sees the Bush management plan as "basically an outsourcing agenda and not much else." Veterans of reinventing government such as Weinstein and Kant dismiss Bush's management initiative as an under-the-radar, poorly funded effort with few concrete achievements. "I think we have the advantage," says Weinstein. "Bush hasn't rolled out much of anything on government reform and reinvention."

By early June, several signs suggested that a more robust Kerry management agenda was under development. Kamarck declined to comment in detail for this article, saying only that the Kerry campaign had asked her to "help figure out some new [reinvention] things to do." Kant, another informal management adviser to the campaign, stressed that some veterans of the Clinton effort "are clearly involved in the Kerry team." Even if Kerry decides not to unveil a broad management reform agenda, how-ever, he already has made a raft of campaign promises that, if implemented, would have a major effect on federal operations.

The Kerry Agenda

Dismantling the Bush management agenda tops Kerry's list of priorities. The Democratic standard-bearer has sharply criticized the Bush administration's effort to let contractors bid on work performed by federal employees. Gordon says Kerry would end Bush's competitive sourcing initiative, which forced more than 30,000 federal workers to compete for their jobs in fiscal 2003.

Kerry himself has publicly spoken out against efforts to outsource federal operations. "I can promise you that, under a Kerry administration, there will be no privatization of air traffic control," he wrote in a March 1 letter to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which promptly endorsed him.

In another rollback of Bush policy, Kerry would grant collective bargaining rights to workers at the Transportation Security Administration and possibly others at the Homeland Security Department, according to Gordon. The Democratic candidate also opposes a Bush proposal to give civilian federal workers a lower pay raise than their counterparts in the uniformed military, Gordon says.

Kerry also has pledged to add 40,000 active-duty troops to the Army, reversing a Bush policy against troop increases. And he has backed increases in veterans bene-fits that would dramatically increase the size and scope of operations at the Veterans Affairs Department. For example, he has pledged to remove veterans health care from the discretionary budget process, making it a mandatory entitlement like Social Security.

"It would totally reverse the decline in the VA health care system," says former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a Kerry supporter. With a price tag of up to $209 billion over 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, it also would rank as one of Kerry's costliest proposals.

Kerry plans to revive a Clinton-era ethics pledge for his political appointees. "In my first 100 days, we will reinstate the five-year ban on lobbying so that government officials cannot cash in by peddling influence," he said in a Jan. 5 speech in Des Moines, Iowa. Kerry said he would halt the Bush practice of awarding cash bonuses to high-performing political appointees, and has pledged to cut the overall number of political appointees in government.

A Kerry administration would try to steer federal contracts away from companies that incorporate in Bermuda to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Furman says firms that move offshore would not be barred from receiving federal contracts, but would be put at a disadvantage. Only a handful of sizable federal contractors are based in Bermuda, including Accenture Ltd. and Tyco International Ltd.

Like many presidential candidates, Kerry has promised to shrink the size of government. But he is the first to pledge to do it by downsizing the contractor workforce instead of the civil service. "The number of contractors, the way the government is operating, is set to grow enormously, and Sen. Kerry is proposing a modest down payment on reducing government by paring that back by 100,000," says Furman. Asked if Kerry had ruled out cutting civil service jobs, Gordon says, "I wouldn't say ruled out, but [the contractor reduction] is the proposal he has right now."

Kerry's contractor cut has been panned by industry organizations. Management experts say it would be difficult to implement without hiring new civil servants-after all, agencies often turn to contractors because they don't have enough federal workers to handle their workload. But NYU professor Light credits Kerry for acknowledging that the contractor workforce needs management attention. "Republicans don't talk that way at all," he says. The University of Wisconsin's Kettl says the proposal could be a first step toward "getting a better handle on contractors."

The idea of cutting contractors came from domestic policy adviser Weinstein, Kerry aides say. In a February study for the Progressive Policy Institute, Weinstein proposed eliminating 150,000 contractors, a move he said could save $67 billion over 10 years. Weinstein's paper also includes several other ideas he says would wring savings out of the bureaucracy: Charge federal workers for parking ($1.29 billion), halt the acquisition of new federal office space ($4 billion), and slash 10 percent of federal jobs outside the Defense and Homeland Security departments ($39 billion).

While Kerry has not endorsed these ideas, most of his management reforms unveiled to date are, like Weinstein's proposals, primarily aimed at cutting the budget deficit, not changing the way agencies are run. "It's the war-on-waste rhetoric of the Reagan years," says Light.

Kerry's veterans proposals represent a "gut-level commitment," says Cleland. But government reform rarely evokes such feelings, meaning the details of Kerry's management plan likely will come down to a back-and-forth between advisers and interest groups-a prospect that worries some Democrats.

Reinvention Redux

To hear some Kerry advisers talk about it, the Bush presidency is an interregnum between the old era of reinventing government under Clinton and the new one that will be ushered in if Kerry is elected. But despite the number of Clinton hands in Kerry's circle of advisers, few of his announced reforms bear the reinvention imprint. In fact, they seem to be crafted to appeal to traditional Democratic interest groups rather than reform-minded management experts. Federal unions, for example, were delighted by Kerry's pledge to cut contractors. "That's a relatively easy reform politically, given Democratic constituencies," admits the Progressive Policy Institute's Atkinson.

But the contractor cut runs counter to a key reinvention theme: that agencies should hire contractors where necessary and appropriate, but not just swap federal employees for contract workers. "If there's any real substantive insight that was supposed to come out of the 1990s, it was that we're supposed to hire contractors, not contract employees," says Steven Schooner, a former Clinton procurement official. Schooner predicts contractors would fight Kerry's plan to use the procurement system to punish contractors that move offshore. "I think you would have open warfare on your hands, but you could try," he says.

Some Clinton veterans aren't concerned that Kerry hasn't offered a detailed management reform agenda at this point in the campaign. "Having too many details can be a problem, because the details may reflect ad hoc lobbying by interest groups or responses to news headlines," says Steven Kelman, an academic who headed the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Clinton administration. Kelman, who says he favors bipartisan reforms, adds, "Once a party is in government, ideas can be vetted more broadly."

If Kerry is elected, his management advisers will face the same political challenge that confronted Clinton: how to craft reforms that appease both the liberal, union-dominated wing of the party, and New Democrats who would gladly sacrifice federal jobs if it helped government take on new missions. "One way or another, [federal unions] are going to have fewer members," says Atkinson. "You might as well do it in a way that preserves the efficiency of government."

Atkinson estimates the government could eliminate up to 370,000 federal positions by boosting productivity and automating some jobs. He also has proposed replacing the Commerce and Labor departments with two quasi-governmental corporations led by CEOs. "Most federal bureaucracies are too slow, hidebound, inflexible and rule-driven to be effective agents for change," he has written.

But others say unions and congressional Democrats would resist a return to the unfinished business of the reinvention revolution. "Kelman and Kamarck are kidding themselves if they think they can just pick up where they left off," says a union observer.

When Clinton was pressured by unions and New Democrats, his solution was to give something to both factions. He coupled extensive downsizing-his administration cut 430,000 federal jobs from 1993 to 2000-with labor-management partnership councils, which gave unions a voice in agency decisions. In retrospect, critics have said Clinton's downsizing left agencies short of valuable talent and may have contributed to a federal "human capital crisis." But downsizing also allowed Clinton to expand government in some areas. In 1993, he backed legislation to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets. Officials said they would pay for the new cops by eliminating 100,000 federal jobs. The legislation's sponsor? John Kerry.


By Jason Peckenpaugh

July 2, 2004

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