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Political Realities of Bold Reforms of the U.S. Government

Political Realities of Bold Reforms of the U.S. Government

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A Campaign 2012 paper by Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst
A Campaign 2012 paper by Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst

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Published by: Brookings Institution on Jul 30, 2012
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Political Realities of Bold Reformsof the U.S. Government
William Galston argues that the reform of federalinstitutions is important to the nation and has been recentlyneglected by both parties. He points to a history involvingconstitutional amendments and the creation of major newfederal agencies and suggests that neither President Obamanor the candidates for the Republican nomination haveproposed anything of similar scope or boldness. He calls for thenext president to launch major institutional reforms in the areasof finance, agency consolidation/deconsolidation, andpolarization.It is hard to quarrel with the premise that the health of federal institutions is very important. However, it is not obviousthat the president and Republican candidates have actuallyneglected needed reforms. The fact that President Obama or Republican candidates have not issued proposals for mandatory voting or a change in the rules of the Senate thatwould allow fast-track confirmations for judicial nominees isevidence of such neglect only if one thinks that these reformsare needed and achievable. If, on the other hand, one favors amajor overhaul of the taxation system or restrictions on theregulatory authority of federal agencies or changes in the
AUTHOR
Grover J. “Russ”
 Whitehurst
Senior Fellow,Governance StudiesDirector,Brown Center onEducation PolicyThe Herman and George R.Brown Chair 
 
 
2
funding of entitlement programs, there is no dearth of major reform proposals floating about in thispolitical season.In a real sense, nearly all pieces of federal legislation and every change in administrativeprocedures instituted through executive authority entail changes in federal institutions. As anexample of executive branch reform, the George W. Bush administration called on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to begin assessing the functioning of all federal programsthrough the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). Compliance with PART required agencyprogram managers throughout the government to negotiate metrics with OMB by which thesuccess of their program would be evaluated and to collect and report data arising from thosemetrics. Both OMB and agency program managers invested large amounts of human capital incarrying out PART. Observers differed as to the importance of the variation in programeffectiveness that PART was meant to address and the likelihood that PART would result insignificant improvements. Some thought it a trivial administrative exercise, whereas othersthought it the most ambitious effort to improve the effectiveness of government programs that hadever been implemented.My point is that the very existence of problems in federal institutions and the extent towhich proffered reforms are bold or wise are not givens. Rather, they represent points of view thathave to advance through the piecemeal and inherently political process of determining whichgovernment programs and processes need fixing and how. Although politicians frequently prefer to avoid the specifics of institutional and policy reform in the context of campaigns, voters knowthat elections have consequences on just these dimensions of political action. In short, there is noneglect of institutional reform in federal politics.Education is a case in point. It has not been given much attention in the run-up to the nextpresidential election. Nor did it receive much consideration in the last cycle. But everyone whocares about education and follows politics knows that the selection of the next president will havesignificant consequences for the federal role in education and for the federal institutions thatimplement federal education laws. Those who think that the best chances for educationalprogress are dependent on wise and assertive federal intervention will likely be able to figure outwho they should vote for even without a presidential debate or specific platform positions on thisissue. Likewise, those who prefer that education decisions remain largely in the hands of parents(the status quo of the nineteenth century) or that they be determined by local school districtmonopolies (the status quo of the twentieth century) will be able to figure out if there is acandidate who can reasonably be expected to favor their point of view. Depending on which

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