We don’t need bigger government, we need more unified authority

The New York TimesDecember 15, 2013 

A couple of months ago, I visited the Congressional Budget Office, one of our most trust-inspiring government agencies. On the elevator ride, one of the economists confided that it can be challenging to be in government these days.

They work furiously hard to analyze the impact of bills — immigration reform, tax reform, entitlement reform and gun legislation — but almost none of these bills ever makes it into law. There’s all this effort, but no result.

And, of course, it’s true. We’re in a period of reform stagnation. It’s possible that years will go by without the passage of a major piece of legislation. Meanwhile, Washington nearly strangles on a gnat, like this week’s teeny budget compromise.

In the current issue of The American Interest, Francis Fukuyama analyzes this institutional decay. His point is that the original system of checks and balances has morphed into a “vetocracy,” an unworkable machine where many interests can veto reform.

First, there is the profusion of interest groups. In 1971, there were 175 registered lobbying firms. By 2009, there were 13,700 lobbyists spending more than $3.5 billion annually, and this doesn’t even count the much larger cloud of activist groups and ideological enforcers.

Then there is the judicial usurpation of power. Fukuyama writes, “conflicts that in Sweden or Japan would be solved through quiet consultations between interested parties through the bureaucracy are fought out through formal litigation in the American court system.” This leads to uncertainty, complexity and perverse behavior.

After a law is passed, there are always adjustments to be made. These could be done flexibly. But, instead, Congress throws implementation and enforcement into the court system by giving more groups the standing to sue. What could be a flexible process is turned into “adversarial legalism” that makes government more intrusive and more rigid.

Fukuyama describes what you might call the demotion of Pennsylvania Avenue. Legislative activity could once be understood by what happens at either end of that street. But now power is dispersed among the mass of rentier groups. Members of Congress lead lives they don’t want to lead because they are beholden to the groups. The president is hemmed in by this new industry, interest group capitalism. The unofficial pressure sector dominates the official governing sector. Throw in political polarization and you’ve got a recipe for a government that is more stultified, stagnant and overbearing.

Fukuyama ultimately throws up his hands. Things would be better, he observes, if we had a more unified parliamentary system, with more administrative discretion. But we don’t. “So we have a problem.”

But there is a way out: Make the executive branch more powerful.

This is a good moment to advocate greater executive branch power, because we’ve just seen a monumental example of executive branch incompetence: the botched Obamacare rollout. It’s important to advocate greater executive branch power in a chastened mood. It’s not that the executive branch is trustworthy; it’s just that we’re better off when the presidency is strong than we are when the rentier groups are strong, or when Congress, which is now completely captured by the rentier groups, is strong.

Here are the advantages. First, it is possible to mobilize the executive branch to come to policy conclusion on something like immigration reform. It’s nearly impossible for Congress to lead us to a conclusion about anything. Second, executive branch officials are more sheltered from the interest groups than congressional officials.

Third, executive branch officials usually have more specialized knowledge than staffers on Capitol Hill and longer historical memories. Fourth, congressional deliberations, to the extent they exist at all, are rooted in rigid political frameworks. Some agencies, especially places like the Office of Management and Budget, are reasonably removed from excessive partisanship.

Fifth, executive branch officials, if they were liberated from rigid congressional strictures, would have more discretion to respond to their screw-ups, like the Obamacare implementation. Finally, the nation can take it out on a president’s party when a president’s laws don’t work. That doesn’t happen in congressional elections, where most have safe seats.

So how do you energize the executive? It’s a good idea to be tolerant of executive branch power grabs and to give agencies flexibility. We voters also need to change our voting criteria. It’s not enough to vote for somebody who agrees with your policy preferences. Presidential candidates need to answer two questions. How are you going to build a governing 60 percent majority that will enable you to drive the Washington policy process? What is your experience implementing policies through big organizations?

We don’t need bigger government. We need more unified authority. Take power away from the rentier groups who dominate the process. Allow people in those authorities to exercise discretion. Find a president who can both rally a majority, and execute a policy process.

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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