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Politics : Politics for Pros- moderated

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From: TimF12/19/2008 9:54:09 PM
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Let's 'Restructure' Washington While We're at It
Congress is at least as unresponsive to consumer demand as Detroit.


Congress has been suitably tough in its advice to Detroit, calling for "a complete restructuring" of our failing auto makers. But how about restructuring Washington? The federal government is a giant Rube Goldberg machine that not only wastes hundreds of billions of dollars each year but also burdens local governments and the private sector with legal requirements that no longer serve the public good. Congress should take its own advice and retool Washington. Here's how:

- Cut "legacy obligations." Detroit cannot afford promises it made in past years. Neither can America. Last year, Congress once again reauthorized farm subsidies, mainly to large corporations, of over $10 billion annually. The farm bill, originally passed in 1933 to keep small farmers afloat (when 25% of Americans lived on farms), outlived its usefulness by the start of World War II.

Today just 2% of Americans live on farms. Congress lectures Detroit about a one-time loan of $15 billion, yet year after year Congress hands $10 billion to corporate farmers. And that's only one of hundreds of institutionalized pork-barrel projects.

- Streamline management. The federal government employs about 2.5 million civilians (including the Post Office), about 10 times the number directly employed in the U.S. by Detroit. The bloat is legendary. In his study on "thickening government," NYU Prof. Paul Light found that some government agencies have 32 layers of management, compared to five layers in most well-run companies.

Civil-service rules make hiring an ordeal and firing practically impossible. Rigid job classifications are far more onerous than UAW work rules, guaranteeing massive inefficiency. At many federal agencies, people shuffle back and forth, passing paper from one level to the next, doing nothing useful. Civil service needs to be overhauled.

- Make products that the public wants. Congress is in the business of making and revising laws. But it almost never goes back and reviews unintended consequences. Pick up any volume of the U.S. Code and ask yourself whether the detailed provisions of that law make sense today.

Take something relatively innocuous, like the requirement in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to maintain the privacy of patient information. One effect is lots of forms -- over $1 billion worth annually. Compliance also stifles important activity: For example, research on heart-attack recovery at the University of Michigan slowed to a crawl when only one-third of the sample bothered to complete the necessary HIPAA paperwork.

- Enhance competitiveness. Washington's failures are far more significant to the economy than Detroit's. The federal government not only is over seven times larger than Detroit in annual expenditures but it also establishes the legal platform on which the entire U.S. economy operates. The legal infrastructure that Congress has provided is a huge, internally inconsistent mess, requiring businesses, hospitals and schools to negotiate a maze of legal detours. Day-to-day, teachers, doctors, business managers and government officials are unable to make sense of ordinary choices. Law has effectively removed the freedom needed to take responsibility.

Take the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, a 670-page statute that ostensibly provides for national testing so we know how schools are doing. But that worthy goal could be accomplished in a few pages, with delegation to the Secretary of Education to make sure the standards are uniform and providing adequate funding. Instead the statute is a model of micromanagement, a top-down exercise in terrorizing teachers into thinking nothing is important except, as one teacher put it, "test, test, test."

- Increase accountability. Members of Congress look out the window at the huge regulatory edifice they've created over the years and throw up their hands. Washington doesn't even have the idea that it has a responsibility for making sense of the laws it has passed. Making detailed laws and never revisiting them is like pointing the car in one direction and leaving the passengers in it without the power to turn the wheel when they hit a curve. Sooner or later the car drives off a cliff.

As Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey said of Detroit, we need a "change in culture, to a culture that answers challenges with innovation rather than lobbying and litigation." Truer words were never spoken about Washington.

Historian Henry Steele Commager once observed that America had developed "an almost lawless passion for lawmaking." Society can't function effectively if weighed down by decades of accumulated law. Americans can't access their can-do spirit if they go through the day looking over their shoulders.

- Impose change from the outside. Entrenched cultures rarely fix themselves. That's more true with Washington than with Detroit -- Washington does not have Toyota or Honda pushing it to compete and innovate. President-elect Barack Obama is committed to change, but, like his predecessors, he will find himself nibbled to exhaustion by thousands of special interests.

What's needed is an outside movement to overhaul Washington, perhaps organized as a nonpartisan shadow government, making proposals area by area. It could be run by a council of elders, such as former political leaders, CEOs and maybe a few mayors who have to suffer under Washington's mandates. Only with intense outside pressure will leadership within Washington be able to surmount the forces of inertia.

The time to act is now. To energize America's flagging economy, there is nothing that would be more important than a dramatic spring cleaning of the law of the land -- all 100 million words of binding requirements, most of which exist only because someone once took the trouble to write them. The point is not to change public goals (although the farm bill might finally disappear), but to realign laws so that they can advance, rather than destroy, them.

Like Detroit, Washington has lost its way. The only solution, as lawmakers are learning with Detroit, is to force its hand. It's worth the effort. Removing the shackles of outmoded law will unleash untold resources and human energy.

Mr. Howard, a lawyer, is chair of Common Good (, and author of the new book "Life Without Lawyers," published next month by W.W. Norton & Co.
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