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Reforming the Administrative State

Reforming the Administrative State

Dear Reader —

Depictions of bureaucracies as inefficient and even inhuman systems of management are familiar to all. And yet the federal bureaucracy is responsible for delivering many goods and services that we take for granted, from Social Security to the postal service. In this sense, bureaucracy, whatever its faults, is “an essential part of any modern democratic state.” 

So argues Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, who joins us for the fifth episode of “The Future of the Administrative State” podcast. “We may think poorly of bureaucrats, but the fact of the matter is that if you suddenly fired everybody, there would be an awful lot of things that Americans value that wouldn’t happen.” That does not mean bureaucracies always work. Kamarck, who helped create the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review — an interagency task force aimed at reforming the federal government — understands better than most how and why the administrative state must be reformed.

First, Kamarck argues, we must reform the civil service by making it easier to hire and fire employees. Second, we have to make it easier for the government to attract top talent. Since the mid-20th century, technology has automated many government functions. As a result, “the federal government has stopped being a government of clerks.” Yet, “we still have a ... clerk mindset,” with pay caps for civil servants that make it difficult for government to compete with the private sector.

Kamarck’s suggested reforms do not end with the executive branch. She also thinks we need more and better congressional oversight. While critics maintain that Congress simply does not have the necessary means or expertise, Kamarck points out that this was not always the case. If “Congress doesn’t have any capacity” today that’s because it “keeps cutting the very agencies that would support it and allow it to have the expertise to do oversight.” 

Ultimately, Kamarck argues, reform requires clarifying what the federal government — as opposed to state and local governments or the private sector — should or should not be doing in the first place. Improving how government works can yield small gains in efficiency. But fundamental reform is both more urgent and more challenging:

If you want to really cut the federal government, you ... have to decide it should stop doing x, y, and z. And that is not a discussion conservatives have realistically had. They don’t, frankly, have the political guts to do it ... And, until that happens ... we’re going to have the same size government we’ve had.

If that’s not a call for bipartisan reform of the administrative state, I don’t know what is.

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


The Real Civil War in the Democratic Party. In The New York Times, Lee Drutman maintains that the real disagreement between populist and establishment Democrats is not over policy so much as whether to trust our political institutions.

Freedom of Choice vs. Freedom from Fear. In USA Today, Ezekiel Emanuel argues GOP health-care proposals promote one form of freedom at the expense of another. 

Don’t Move Consular & Refugee Processing to DHS. In our own pages, Kristie De Peña explains how a proposed executive action could further stall visa and refugee processing. 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Reconciliation Bill. The Brookings Institution’s Molly E. Reynolds explains how the complicated parliamentary procedure works. 

End Protectionism in the Shipping Industry. Also in our pages, William Murray contends that a nearly 100-year-old law aimed at protecting the U.S. shipping industry has had the opposite effect. 

To Restore the Republic Reimpose “Regular Order.” In American Greatness, Angelo Codevilla argues reestablishing regular order is the only way to restore “Congress as the American people’s primary representative institution.”

The Conservative Case for Universal Health Care. For The American Conservative, Chase Madar contends that “conservatives will soon be embracing single-payer healthcare,” and that’s a good thing. 

Infrastructure Spending Must Justify Itself. In RealClearPolicy, Tony Caporale and Marc Poitras present research indicating that “economic stimulus and jobs should never be the primary justification for government spending.”

Can the Left Help Revive State Sovereignty? In Library of Law & Liberty, Nick Dranias urges fellow conservatives to “enlist the Left in a mutual spirit of opportunism to revive” federalism.

Can Tax Credits Improve Rural Broadband Access? Also in our pages, Pranjal Drall spotlights a new proposal from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

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