Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Confirming Our Suspicions

A recent, anonymous article titled Confessions of a Congressman has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter; its author claims to be a current member of Congress.

Most of the “confessions” are anything but surprising. The influence of money and gerrymandering are obvious to pretty much any sentient being. But the author does flesh out the critique:

It is more lucrative to pander to big donors than to regular citizens. Campaigns are so expensive that the average member needs a million-dollar war chest every two years and spends 50 percent to 75 percent of their term in office raising money. Think about that. You’re paying us to do a job, and we’re spending that time you’re paying us asking rich people and corporations to give us money so we can run ads convincing you to keep paying us to do this job. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, the mega-rich have been handed free loudspeakers. Their voices, even out-of-state voices, are drowning out the desperate whispers of ordinary Americans.

Without crooked districts, most members of Congress probably would not have been elected. According to the Cook Political Report, only about 90 of the 435 seats in Congress are “swing” seats that can be won by either political party. In other words, 345 seats are safe Republican or Democratic seats. Both parties like it that way. So that’s what elections are like today: rather than the voters choosing us, we choose the voters. The only threat a lot of us incumbents face is in the primaries, where someone even more extreme than we are can turn out the vote among an even smaller, more self-selected group of partisans.

The author faults a dramatic increase in party loyalty for much of what is wrong with the legislature; he says partisanship has turned Congress into a parliament, and–among other negative consequences–made service on congressional committees or other efforts to develop real expertise in an area of governance irrelevant (you have to vote with your party even if your knowledge of the issue suggests that other options are better).

That revolving door? The one that leads to K street and a lobbying career? It’s the highly desired pot of gold at the end of the public service rainbow.

The author ends by telling us two things we already know: the best and brightest don’t want anything to do with running for Congress; and we desperately need them there.

As he says, Congress has never been more than a sausage factory. The point is not to make it something it’s not: the point is to get it to make sausage again.

The Brits are Right About Right to Work

I love the Guardian; as real newspapers have gotten rarer and actual reporting even rarer, it  reminds me what journalism used to be.

Recently, the paper reported on an upcoming Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v California Teachers Association. That case, said the Guardian

will decide if right-to-work laws (designed to bankrupt unions by encouraging employees who benefit from collective bargaining agreements to not pay for them) will extend to all public employees nationwide – an outcome Justice Samuel Alito has all but promised to deliver.

The article proceeded to provide the context of the ongoing battles over Right to Work–a context rarely provided by today’s “McPapers”:

Economic arguments for right-to-work are, however, always highly speculative, proposing that the low-wage jobs that might be created by companies attracted by such laws would offset the very real, calculable income losses that inevitably accompany deunionization.

So if these laws don’t boost the economy, what else don’t they do?

Despite what their proponents say, right-to-work laws don’t put an end to “compulsory union membership.” There is no such thing, not since 1947, when closed shops – arrangements where union membership was a condition of employment – were banned under the Taft-Hartley Act. No one in the US can legally be fired for refusing to join a union, whether they are in a right-to-work state or not. Nor do such laws “protect” workers from having their dues diverted to political campaigns they do not support; workers already have that protection.

What right-to work laws do is ban a particular type of employment contract, voted on by employees, that requires all employees – union or not – to pay fair share provisions, a fraction of the dues that union members pay to cover the costs of negotiating and enforcing their contract.

The article points out in some detail the “great irony” of small-government libertarians who are more than willing to use the coercive power of the state to ban private contracts in the name of workers’ freedom. As it concludes

Once you strip away the baseless economic and philosophical arguments, you’re left with the politics: politicians who want to help employers maintain the power they have over employees, by gutting any institution that might help employees tilt the balance in their direction.

Interestingly, larger employers are beginning to recognize that this war on workers’ wages ultimately hurts business–that paying better wages is good for the bottom line. Last month, Aetna and Ford announced that their workers would get substantial raises, joining enterprises like Costco, Trader Joe’s and several others who do better by paying better. Even Walmart--granddaddy of companies paying slave wages–has moved to increase wages.

At some point, evidence will outweigh ideology. When it does, the Guardian, at least, will report it.

Pigs Get Fed, Hogs Get Slaughtered

That old saying usually refers to excesses of greed, but it has relevance to other examples of  over-reach.

Take the embarrassing effort by majority Republicans and Governor Pence to deny Glenda Ritz the office to which she was elected (by more votes than Pence received, not so incidentally). The GOP is stripping her of everything but the title.

I have no idea whether Ritz might have done a good job as Superintendent of Public Instruction in the absence of the sustained assault she’s endured. (Given several less-than-strategic responses to that assault, I have my doubts.) Under the circumstances, however, her performance really is irrelevant–the Governor moved against her before she’d had time to perform.

Brian Howey has a recent column delving into the background of the hostilities involved, and the role played by the politics around Common Core. The column included this observation, which I think is dead on:

The other political subtext has been the two-year feud between Ritz and the State Board of Education, made up of mostly Pence appointees. Republican legislation is targeting Ritz’s chairing of the board. The legislation has energized Ritz’s base, as well as the sprawling Indiana education community that helped forge her upset of Bennett.

 The visuals here are Republican supermajorities and the governor seeking to take away duties of an elected official, and a female at that.

Bad optics.

 If Pence had clamped down on the legislation aimed at Ritz, the ISTEP story would be hers, not his. He now finds himself in a political minefield, not impossible to escape, but …“He has now taken ownership of the issue,” said one Republican county chairman speaking on background. “The jungle drums are beating.”

The resentment from teachers (including those who typically vote Republican) is palpable; the turnout at last Monday’s statehouse rally–despite bitter cold and snow–should have sent a message to lawmakers about the pitfalls of energizing an opposing base.

Granted, a clueless GOP super-majority is approaching a number of issues in an equally ham-handed fashion. The assault on the state’s “common wage” is unlikely to affect more than a handful of projects, but the symbolism of attacking it is calculated to enrage and motivate union members and sympathizers. The all-out assault on the environment–via a number of ALEC-drafted measures meant to insulate corporate farms from lawsuits for polluting state waterways and to hobble regulation–has similarly galvanized the environmentally-conscious.

But it is the over-reach against Ritz that has garnered the most headlines–and pissed off the most people–and it is that childish assault that is mostly likely to come back to bite Pence and his legislative consiglieri’s. 


The Cost of Saving Money

Last year, In the Public Interest released a report that highlighted a harmful but frequently overlooked way in which our tax dollars are fueling income inequality.

Every time a city or state outsources a public service to a low-wage contractor, the community loses. Taxpayers have to make up the difference in the form of nutrition assistance, healthcare coverage, and other programs designed to help people working for minimum wage and living in poverty. The report included examples from across the country, including public servants in Costa Mesa and Fresno, CA, who either lost their jobs to – or were at risk of being replaced by – low-wage contractors.

There are a number of problems with government outsourcing–aka “privatization”–and a copious academic literature documenting those problems. When government provides services through surrogates–via third-party contracts–it needs different management skills (skills that are relatively rare in government agencies, meaning oversight is hit or miss). Mayors and governors often give in to the temptation to reward their cronies with lucrative contracts. (Indeed, privatization has become the current form of patronage). And the promised savings are rarely realized, even without accounting for the problem identified by the report.

There are certainly times when outsourcing makes sense, but far too often the decision has been made on the basis of a near-religious belief in the superior performance of the private sector. As this report suggests, those perceived “efficiencies” can end up costing us in less visible but no less expensive ways.

There really is no such thing as a free lunch.


Letter to the Next President

Don Kettl is a highly respected scholar of government and public management, and he has penned a very thoughtful article–I would say a “must read” article– for a recent issue of Washington Monthly.  In it, he pretends that the 2016 election is over and he’s advising the winner.

Titled “Ten Secret Truths About Government Incompetence,” he begins with the “secret truth” that government actually does a great many things with admirable competence, and works far better than most people think, sharing a long list of areas in which good government performance is taken for granted.

Kettl uses the list to warn the new President that good management will go unremarked, but screw-ups will be magnified.

He also points out that media and citizens alike fail to distinguish between embarrassing, but essentially minor, mistakes, and truly consequential ones:

You’ve benefited from the “Obama is incompetent” narrative. It increased the public’s appetite for getting you—and some fresh air—into Washington. But let’s be honest: you lucked out because of the media’s inability or unwillingness to notice, care about, or explain the difference between hugely consequential management screw-ups and only modestly consequential ones.

Failing to plan for the occupation of Iraq? Disbanding the Iraqi military? Putting inexperienced political cronies in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and downsizing the agency prior to Hurricane Katrina? Now those were screw-ups—big, far-reaching, world-historic blunders that led directly to the deaths of thousands.

As Kettl says, compare that to the inept Obamacare website roll-out , where no one died, and the problems were soon fixed.

Of course, these were big stories—but they were mostly big political stories. The stumbles embarrassed the Obama administration, hinted at an underlying management problem in the administration (more on that shortly), and helped the Republicans weave a powerful campaign narrative. But the stories weren’t about big failures with huge consequences. They were about putting torpedoes below the political waterline.

Kettl also addressed one of my pet peeves: the notion that government should be “run like a business.” Addressing his mythical new President, he writes

You made the case in your campaign that government needs to learn from the best-run private companies. That’s an irresistible line that Republicans invented and Democrats—especially Obama—have come to champion. But, of course, you know that the private sector isn’t always a model of good management. Remember New Coke, Windows 8, the collapse of Chi-Chi’s restaurants, and shrapnel-filled airbags? That’s even before we get to the wholesale financial miscalculations and fraud that led to global economic collapse.

The private market has a big advantage over government: it can bury its bodies in balance sheets and deal with its failures by quietly turning out the lights and locking the doors.

The entire article is well worth reading, especially the section on outsourcing–the fact that most government work is no longer done by government, and how that fact complicates management and accountability. His reminder that so many of the problems we attribute to a President are really problems created by Congress is especially timely.

All in all, the article is an important corrective to the rampant, uninformed anti-government rhetoric meant to appeal to people who don’t have the foggiest notion what government is or does or how it functions.

It’s also reminder that We the People not only need government,  we need the civic skills to make it work properly.