Laws Gone Astray

D

ecember marks the 25th anniversary of three of the most important administrative reforms ever enacted. There might have been a celebration, perhaps even a congressional resolution, if the laws had worked. Unfortunately, the Civil Service Reform Act, Inspector General Act and Ethics in Government Act, all signed in 1978, have not made a dent in public cynicism toward government.

It is not that the laws are too modest. The Civil Service Reform Act was designed to create a government as good as the people, the Ethics in Government Act promised to close the revolving door between private interests and presidential appointments, and the Inspector General Act launched a coordinated assault on government fraud, waste and abuse.

It is not that the laws have been ignored. The federal government created a prestigious Senior Executive Service to lead its civilian workforce, promulgated new financial disclosure rules for presidential appointees, and established inspector general offices at every agency to coordinate the war on waste. Reforms included a new pay-for-performance system, prohibited former appointees from lobbying their agencies for at least a year after leaving office, and gave inspectors general broad authority.

The IGs have been particularly active lately, launching highly visible investigations of the Justice Department's terrorist detentions, contract fraud at the General Services Administration, continued problems with airport security and political meddling in Interior Department rule-making.

Despite these efforts, the public is even more doubtful about government performance today than it was 25 years ago. According to an October survey by the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service, which I direct, 70 percent of Americans say the federal government wastes a great deal of money, and 23 percent say it wastes a fair amount. By comparison, only 11 percent think small businesses waste a great deal of money, while more than half think they waste little or none.

So what went wrong?

First, the Ethics in Government and Inspector General acts might have worked too well. Instead of ensuring a scandal-proof government, the Ethics Act discouraged talented Americans from seeking presidential appointments, while feeding the public's cynicism about the role of big money in government. And instead of easing public concerns about government spending, the inspectors general produced yearly records of waste, which candidates of both parties used to bash the bureaucracy in their election campaigns.

Second, despite their successes, all three laws produced frustration. The Senior Executive Service never became the highly mobile corps it promised to be, the Ethics Act has done little to restore public confidence that government is clean, and the IGs still struggle to get the resources needed to prevent fraud, waste and abuse.

The Civil Service Reform Act has been a particular disappointment. Pay for performance has never worked as intended; the hiring, firing, and promoting process has produced a government as tall as Mount Everest and filled with excessive layering, overgrading and muddled chains of command, in which no one can be held accountable.

As for IG activism, the Bush administration appears to be struggling to get the watchdogs back in the kennel. Despite last year's mini-purge of four Clinton administration holdovers, the IGs keep on digging. The deeper they dig, the more they hit problems on Bush's watch, and White House political czar Karl Rove continues to urge presidential appointees to muzzle the IGs.

Third, lawmakers and presidents have never stopped reforming government. Between 1980 and 2002, they enacted another 82 major laws designed to make government work, and a host of repairs and expansions of old laws.

As the velocity of reform has increased, so has the confusion. Congress and the president have asked government to do it all-build new agencies, reform the old, and ferret out fraud, waste and abuse-while opening government to the sunshine, then fighting to keep the public out. Every president enters office promising the most ethical, transparent, waste-conscious and businesslike administration in history, but soon finds its policies, appointees, task forces and decisions under scrutiny. All of a sudden, being ethical and transparent aren't so attractive.

This is certainly the case with the Bush administration. It was one thing to promise transparency before Vice President Dick

Cheney was accused of a conflict of interest over his energy task force in 2001. But it was quite another to honor the pledge during a desperate search for weapons of mass destruction and the feeding frenzy surrounding $87 billion in Iraq reconstruction projects. If the past is any guide, the projects will go to qualified bidders who gave buckets of campaign money to Republicans.

It is no wonder, therefore, that even big statutes might not be able to turn the tide of public opinion. Like drops in the ocean, they cannot stop the tidal wave of quid pro quos that make Washington look more like a flea market than the home of the world's greatest democratic institutions.


Paul C. Light is director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service and a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

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