Philip Howard Explains Why Washington Is Broken: It's Run By Dead People

How Dead People Run Washington
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: Suthor Philip K. Howard attends the Municipal Art Society of New York's 2011 gala at The New York Public Library on April 28, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: Suthor Philip K. Howard attends the Municipal Art Society of New York's 2011 gala at The New York Public Library on April 28, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Philip K. Howard, founder of nonprofit Common Good, thinks that the American government is being run by dead people. And no, he is not talking about zombies. He's referring to the maze of government regulations and laws, written by those long gone but still on the books, that are haunting and paralyzing Washington today.

Government gridlock is not merely a product of polarized leadership, Howard argued in an interview with The Huffington Post on Thursday. The problem is more systemic, rooted in outdated laws and special interest money that make change difficult, if not impossible.

The New York-based lawyer and writer has a new book, The Rule of Nobody, to be published on April 14 by Norton, expanding on this argument. He does not call for getting rid of regulations, but simplifying them in order to empower people to make decisions.

One of the phrases that struck me in the book is that "American Democracy is basically run by dead people." What do you mean by that?

The important decisions made by our government have been preset in legal concrete by statutes and regulations written in past generations and not altered for decades.

Special education, which is a really important law, but has had the unintended consequence of ballooning into about 25 percent of the total K-12 budget. There's none left over for programs for gifted children or pre-K education. Is that the right balance? No one is even asking the question.

It was a statute written in a certain way 40 years ago and that's just the way it works. It's like a runaway train.

So you mentioned [in the book] the idea of sunsetting budget provisions every 15 years. Why do you suggest that? I wanted to ask -- as a reporter who covered the government shutdown of 2013 as well as debt ceiling after debt ceiling -- how would this not turn into perpetual warfare every time something had to be reauthorized?

Well, it might. Ultimately, there is no system that can create a healthy political culture. But what that suggestion is meant to address is that Congress does not even have the idea that its job is to see how all the old laws are working. Each old law is surrounded by an army of special interests, so that changing it is so inconceivable that people have literally given up.

[House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi was on Jon Stewart a few weeks ago, and he asked, "Well, don't you need to make sure that the laws are working?" And she said, "No, that's not my responsibility, my responsibility is just to pass the laws."

You spend much of the book criticizing regulation. What are some examples of regulations being harmful?

What I criticize is not the idea of regulation. I think that government oversight is vital in a crowded society to make sure that nursing homes and day care centers are adequate, [along with] other important regulatory goals.

What I criticize is this idea of micro-regulation, where you impose literally thousands of rules onto things like nursing homes. What happens is that they are counterproductive, because the people in the nursing homes spend their time complying with the rules instead of making life nice for the residents. There's a fair body of evidence that it is counterproductive, and other countries that have moved over to a more general principles-based type of regulation where you go for goals to have a nursing home that respects the dignity of the residents and offers a home-like setting.

Those forms of regulation produce dramatically better nursing homes than this kind of micro-regulation strategy that we have adopted in the United States.

The United States is like an obsessive-compulsive. The Constitution was 10 pages long, the Volcker rule is 950 pages. Words can't create fairness. It's goals and principles and people applying them that creates fairness and adequacy. We've tried to create a form of automatic government that isn't working.

You say "No one in Washington is asking what the right thing to do is." What do you mean by that, specifically?

I think Washington has become its own bubble, its own culture, separated by the Beltway from the rest of the country. It's mutated into a perpetual tug of war, where political leaders get up in the morning not trying to do anything constructive but just make the other side look bad.

The other people in Washington, lawyers, lobbyists and journalists, play their role in dealing with this perpetual tug of war, and nothing much happens. It's this paralytic political structure without any significant connection to the real needs of the country. I think it's a profoundly sick and dysfunctional political culture much worse today than it was even 30 years ago.

I don't think the problem is so much bad leadership or even polarized politics. I think those are symptoms of a structural powerlessness, where the combination of the accretion of law, the influence of special interest money, has made it so hard to change a law or to change directions that people have really given up.

What are your solutions for not only regulatory reform, but also for political reform?

First of all, nothing is politically feasible today. Congress can barely raise the debt ceiling to avoid national default, much less do anything like I'm suggesting.

I believe that we will get big change but only when there's a crisis that engenders widespread fear and anger in the population. I think we need to revert to a model, which our founders intended to give us, where democracy is a concept of electing people who take responsibility to not avoid their values, but apply their values, to try to make common choices on behalf of our society, and where Congress sees its job not as just occasionally passing new laws but making sure the old laws work -- who else is going to make sure they work? And where the president has the authority to actually run the executive branch instead of being paralyzed by so many laws that inhibit the president's management authority that he might as well be a figurehead when it comes to the basic management of the executive branch. He can't even appoint advisers who he wants because there's a congressional act, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, that dictates exactly how he appoints outside, unpaid advisers.

I think we're going to have what's generally referred to as a re-codification, a basic spring cleaning of government -- not to deregulate -- but to radically simplify laws so that regulation and our public goals have a chance at being reasonably effective.

I think that's only going to happen in the context of a crisis. But crises don't necessarily result in good reforms. The French Revolution was terrifying. The Arab Spring did not result in this outburst of healthy democracy.

One of the reasons I've written this book is to try to get people talking about what a new vision of a functioning government may be so that when the time comes, we won't be taken by surprise and fall into the grips of either the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street.

Lastly, do you see any signs of hope?

The hope is not within Washington or within the political system ... It's in kind of a swamp. I think the hope is in the American people. If you look at the surveys and polls, the American people are almost universally disgusted with the way the system of government works. If you poll on specific issues, you'll get surprising responses on things like global warming or the need to make justice more reliable or other issues which the parties are deeply divided on but which the public seems to be more than willing to accept a change in direction.

The opportunity is to mobilize the public behind big change in a way that allows our country to meet the challenges of this new century, and I think the public is going to get there a lot sooner than Washington is.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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