Following my op-ed in today's Washington Post, Can't Do Government, I submitted this open letter to the campaigns with a legislative proposal for reforming government.
June 25, 2008
McCain 2008 Obama for America
P.O. Box 16118 P.O. Box 8102
Arlington, VA 22215 Chicago, IL 60680
Dear Senators McCain and Obama:
I am writing to seek your support for a bipartisan effort to restore the federal government's ability to faithfully execute the laws. As sitting senators, you have the power to co-sponsor legislation today that would greatly increase government performance. And as your party's presidential nominees, Congress would have ample reason to enact long overdue reforms before election day.
Creating a government well executed is not as difficult as it might sound. Much of the legislation is easy to draft and at least some has already been introduced. You also know what to say in persuading your colleagues to act, in part because you have called for needed reforms in the past and promised action in the future. You now have a once-in-a-generation chance to take action in the present.
Your legislation would need only five simple sections. Taken separately, each one could make an important impact on government performance. But passed as a package of simultaneous reform, the McCain-Obama Government in the 21st Century Act would produce enormous gains in government performance.
Reverse the layering of government. Congress and the president have added dozens of needless layers to the federal organization chart over the past thirty years. It is no wonder that no one can be held accountable for what goes right or wrong in government -- not the aircraft groundings, counterfeit Heparin, leaded toys, toxic trailers, or even bad tomatoes. Title I of the McCain-Obama Act would restore this lost accountability by cutting the number of management layers in half.
Reduce the number of political appointees. The next president will make 3,000 political appointments, an increase from just 400 in 1961. Three thousand may be a tiny number when compared against a federal workforce of nearly 2 million, but it is a very large number in terms of lost transparency. Not only do these political appointees occupy more than a quarter of the management layers between the top and bottom of most departments and agencies, the appointments process itself has become a dangerous source of delay. Title II of the McCain-Obama Act would reduce the delays and the vacancies that come with them by cutting the number of political appointees in half, while streamlining the appointments process.
Increase the capacity to faithfully execute all the laws. Federal employees complain of shortages in every resource they need to do their jobs well. These shortages are particularly severe at the bottom of the government where services are delivered. There are simply not enough border patrol officers, food and drug inspectors, revenue agents, immigration officers, veterans nurses, and contract specialists. Title III of the McCain-Obama Act would stem the erosion of excellence by giving the next president the funding to hire at least 100,000 new front-line employees in 2009.
Restore interest in federal careers. The federal government's sluggish bureaucracy is perfectly designed to drive talented young Americans to the private or charitable sectors. Young Americans want to be rewarded for results, not time on the job; they want to be promoted on the merits, not favoritism; and they want to make a difference now, not in thirty years. Title IV of the McCain-Obama Act would make the federal government a destination of choice again by creating a highly-competitive Spirit of Service corps that would give 5,000 of the nation's best and brightest four years of tuition in return for eight years of service.
Improve oversight of the huge workforce of contractors that now delivers goods and services on behalf of the federal bureaucracy. Presidents and Congress have moved millions of jobs to an estimated contract workforce of more than 7.6 million employees, or three contractors for every federal employee. The number of contractors has grown by 70 percent since 2002, mostly through contracts that have been awarded without competition. Title V of the McCain-Obama Act would strengthen government's bargaining position by requiring competitive bidding on at least 80 percent of all federal contracts. It would also stop the revolving door between government and contract firms by imposing a five-year ban on lobbying by former presidential appointees and senior civil servants.
Government reform has rarely been the stuff of which presidential dreams are made. But it essential if you are to honor the promises you make. You could do nothing more important in the coming months than to work together on a strategy for reforming the federal bureaucracy. Like tremors before an earthquake, the signs of another breakdown are already clear. The McCain-Obama Act could prevent it.
Thank you for your consideration.
Paul Light, Ph.D.
Professor, Wagner School of Public Service, New York University