Defining good governance in the modern era beyond spending money

There is no doubt that the size and scope of government has changed since the Founding, but a more expansive government requires even more transparency, oversight, and accountability in order to function properly.  A return to regular order is just the beginning of reforms to ensure the elusive good governance.

Last week, much ink was shed over the Republican Party’s inability to govern as a result of the selection of the Speaker of the House requiring fifteen ballots.  Generally speaking, concerns about Republican governance, or lack thereof, centered around funding the government and raising the debt ceiling, suggesting that governance as a concept had been reduced to spending money and ensuring we can borrow more of it without fail.  Being good at government now means passing bills, however wasteful, ineffective, or poorly drafted, and not asking too many questions.  We saw this last summer when President Joe Biden put together what was considered an unexpected string of legislative victories.  He failed to secure the border, tame inflation, or fix supply chains, but passing bills made him a President on the comeback whether or not they were as effective as advertised and whatever the process to get them passed.  In this view, all other concerns have become subservient to feeding the leviathan and ensuring its continued growth.  Once upon a time, that was not the case.  It may seem quaint in the year 2023, but there was an extended period between the nation’s founding and the early 20th century, where leading politicians from both major parties took great pains to consider such niceties as the Constitutionality, fairness, and overall impact of any given proposal.  On occasion, leaders like Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, and others refused to support legislation they were personally sympathetic to because it failed to conform to what we may call higher level principles of various kinds.  To be sure, politicians have frequently disagreed on the nature of these principles, sometimes purely for their own benefit, nor has there ever been a shortage of politicians entirely without principle.  There have always been those who served only themselves at worst or their personal political goals at best, torturing principle into the service of power.  At the same time, this was generally not seen as the ideal and more naked displays of these traits were heavily criticized while those who showed strong moral conviction were praised.  Congressional Representatives, Senators, and Presidents all swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and at least paid lip service to the ideal.

The rapid expansion in the size and scope of government over the past century or so has radically shifted this dynamic.  The idea that government need be involved in nearly everything from providing relief in the event of a natural disaster to mandating the amount of water that can be flushed down a toilet, rather than restrained to a handful of enumerated powers, has changed the incentives for politicians.  Today, it is almost impossible to imagine a leading figure from either party making the argument that the government has no right or power to be involved in the first place whatever their personal opinion on the subject or however sympathetic those they claim are in need.  The idea that the government needs to do something, anything has become so deeply ingrained in the national psyche it seems that the choice not to act at all is no longer possible.  The first principle is no longer adherence to the philosophy of the Constitution, the traditions of our republic, or even the letter of the law.  The first principle is instead the need for action above all other considerations, but given politicians are generally no more principled then they ever were, this frequently becomes the mere appearance of action, however misguided, ineffective, or whatever the unintended consequences.  This trend has been exacerbated by the massive amounts of money at their disposal, offering politicians the ability to both pretend they care and lavishly fund their various constituents, creating a vicious cycle.  Politicians are incentivized to show they are productive, meaning that they can adhere to the new standards of governance, by passing new laws.  Those laws generally contain funding streams.  Those funding streams are all-too frequently put to uses that benefit the politician pushing for the law in the first place, either through earmarks for pet projects, subsidies to favored industries, or direct payments to favored groups.  Alternatively, those in positions of executive authority, whether a president, a governor, a mayor, or another officer are encouraged to govern by fiat, passing orders at alarming rates, sometimes just for show and others with massive consequences unmoored from any Constitutional boundaries.  Frequently, the executive is in the bizarre position of issuing an order they’d previously declared they could not, revealing that they might acknowledge some limit on their power in a philosophical sense, but that limit is no longer seen as any kind of permanent restraint.

Of course, there is little doubt that the nature of government has changed dramatically over the past century.  The people certainly expect more from their local, state, and federal government today than they did a hundred years ago, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.  We are eons removed from the first county edict in the Dakota Territory in 1886, which promised to “hang, burn, or drown any many that will ask for public improvements at the expense of the County.”  In this sense, politicians can be said to be responding to (or at least be seen to be responding to) the needs and desires of their constituents as they always have, and that the older principles simply no longer apply in the modern era.  Putting this another way, it’s not their fault that voters from both parties demand more from the government than ever before and that these demands do not always align with the form, structure, and goals of our democracy as it was originally conceived.  Ironically, this is precisely backwards:  A government that is going to do more and spend more than ever before requires an even stricter adherence to principles in order to function.  When governments of all kinds were small and restrained, the impact of government action whether right, wrong, or indifferent was likely to be limited.  The larger the government, the greater the impact, and the more important it becomes to ensure that impact is truly positive.  This is a version of the old adage, frequently but incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson.  “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”  The harsh truth of this statement should no longer be in dispute in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where politicians repeatedly asserted their power to determine who was allowed to earn a living, how their children could be educated, where people were allowed to gather and why, what additional clothing they must wear in public, and what medical treatments they must take, all without actually voting on legislation that might authorize any of this.  To this day, powerful politicians continue to insist you can be fired from your job for refusing to be fully vaccinated.  Generally speaking, the proponents of these policies acknowledged no limits on them even as they sought exceptions for their favored constituents.

All of this begs the question, what does good governance look like in the modern era?  Accepting that we live in a world where the powers of government have expanded dramatically does not preclude limits on that power or the processes around its exercise.  We might start with an understanding that the process can be more important at times than the outcome.  What is referred to as a “regular order” is a set of procedures to craft legislation that were developed over decades.  This order exists not for the sake of it, but because the output of legislation drafted and debated in the appropriate Committee before consideration in the full House or Senate is likely to be far superior than otherwise for two key reasons.  First, there will be multiple rounds of review as the legislation comes together in Committee.  Mistakes in the drafting can be corrected, potential costs can be fully considered, and any potential unintended consequences can be addressed.  In addition, lawmakers can more freely propose amendments and alternatives in a small setting, wherein they are supposed to have specific expertise on the topics considered by the Committee.  The process will necessarily be slower of course, but as the saying goes, slow is smooth and smooth is fast.  Second, an open debate in a Committee is inherently transparent.  The public can observe the legislation as it comes together, the different versions being debated, understand which lawmaker has proposed what, and have some reasonable level of confidence that any proposal has been properly considered and vetted.  The same level of confidence applies to lawmakers in the full House of Representatives or the Senate.  We cannot expect every lawmaker to be an expert on every subject or to be immersed in the details of every bill.  Sad to say, it is a fair assumption that the majority of lawmakers no longer read bills in the first place, relying on their staff to do so or voting as their party does.  A process that moves a bill through methodically with appropriate critical control points will result in more well-reasoned, accurate legislation less likely to suffer from mistakes or produce adverse, unintended consequences.  Conversely, self-serving politicians will become more hesitant to make self-serving proposals knowing they will be scrutinized. There is little, if any, conceivable downside to this from the point of view of a voter or the government’s coffers.  Legislation might take a little longer to become law, but rarely does a bill need to move as fast as the politicians claim.  The only downside is for the politicians themselves, who will find it more difficult to shower their favored constituencies and will be more accountable to their positions on legislation.

Regular order should be the bare minimum we can expect from a functioning government that has no issue proscribing near endless processes that people are forced to follow.  Putting this another way, the Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t going to waive the procedure to replace your license because you’re in a rush.  The lawmakers that craft the bills that support those procedures should not be able to waive their own procedures because they have a subsidy to earmark for a favored project.  Once regular order is established, we can look at requirements throughout the process, namely a basic Constitutional and budgetary justification for any given piece of legislation before it leaves the Committee.  This need not be a lesson in Constitutional law or a guarantee that the bill would survive a Supreme Court challenge, but it is not unreasonable to expect Congressional leaders to provide a high level rationale for their proposals.  Of course, we’ve already established that politicians can rarely be trusted, nor can we know how a Court will ultimately rule, but regardless of these concerns, the country would surely benefit from a continued discussion surrounding the Constitutionality of all major pieces of legislation.  A habit of discussing the Constitutionality of a given proposal in public would increase awareness of the purpose of the Constitution in the first place and better force politicians to explain their actions.  Budgetary controls are almost equally important.  Regular order should include a baseline before the bill and a projection after the bill, both easily available from the Congressional Budget Office.  Once again, we can understand that politicians cannot be trusted to be completely honest in these attestations, surely they will do everything possible to manipulate the numbers in their favor, but the sheer habit of doing them and ensuring they are available for public discussion will have a significant impact.

There is also something to be said for evaluating the impact of bills after they are passed and ensuring they are delivering the promised results on the anticipated budget.  All too often these days, there is a frenzy to pass the bill accompanied by bold promises followed by very little interest after the signing ceremony.  Consider the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law over a year ago to much media fanfare.  Reporting before the bill’s passage and the announcement of its passage far outstrips the interest in whether this trillion dollar investment is being spent wisely.  Last month, Fortune magazine provided a follow up report which was less than encouraging.  Barely 10% of the bill’s funding has been allocated, much less spent.  As they put it, the challenges facing the bill are “steep but surmountable.  Getting things right starts with transparency, which requires, among other steps, that federal and state governments announce precisely where infrastructure investments are going. They also need to keep the public informed on how and where the money is spent. Among other benefits, transparency will facilitate learning from past projects’ successes and failures.”  This is an astounding admission over a year after a trillion dollar horse has left the barn.  Shouldn’t these considerations have been part of the bill itself?  In that regard, it should not be too much to ask that legislation include a required annual progress report, delivered in public and with opportunity for questions and answers.  We should also consider sunset provisions that are popular in some states such as Texas and required as part of the Senate’s reconciliation process that would force subsequent votes to continue the bill past a certain period.  If a bill is as popular and effective as advertised, surely representatives would be happy to vote on it a second or third time.  Politicians will necessarily try to avoid these requirements and there are likely even certain instances where a permanent bill is desirable, but this should be the exception rather than the rule, and we can hope the habit alone is beneficial.

There are necessarily no shortage of other worthy ideas that can improve governance, from term limits to baseline budgeting to the legislative branches reigning in excessive use of executive power, but the fact remains that some changes are clearly required.  The United States has piled on $7.3 trillion in debt since the start of the pandemic, almost 25% of the total $31 trillion in just three years.  Measures to restrict spending from the oft-maligned yet effective “sequester” under President Barack Obama and the PAY-GO Act have all proven ineffective, disregarded or planned to be disregarded almost as soon as they were signed into law.  The deficit for the first month of the 2023 fiscal year was an astounding $248 billion with both sides of the equation moving in the wrong direction.  Revenues decreased by 11% while outlays increased by 6%.  There is not a reasonable person on the planet who truly believes this is sustainable, and yet there was bipartisan agreement to add even more spending in the 4,000 plus page omnibus that was released in the dark of night and passed right before the holidays.  It should not be difficult to build – or force, if necessary – a bipartisan consensus that processes and procedures including regular order are required in the name of good governance, but sadly that might not be strictly true.  Lost in the political firestorm last week was the simple fact that conservative House members were negotiating for changes to the rules that they feel will help address the fiscal and Constitutional challenges facing the country from the lack of anything resembling order or budgetary sanity.  In their minds at least, they won a substantial victory in that regard including a return to regular order.  “It’s the most significant win for conservatives in a decade, possibly the biggest in a generation,” a senior congressional aide told The Federalist last weekend. “The rules package, if adopted, will actually impact policy outcomes by forcing a transparent and open process.”  “Everything that Republicans and conservatives say they hate — giant, thousand-page spending bills negotiated by a handful of people with little input from anyone else, plum committee assignments reserved for insiders, and a closed off amendment process — is addressed here,” the person added.  It is fair to debate whether their proposals are effective or just plain grandstanding.  Others might well have superior ideas, but the fact remains this is a debate that needs to be had.  Governance is about more than spending money, especially when we cannot print it fast enough to spend it even faster.  We frequently hear about threats to democracy, but there is no threat greater than an insolvent treasury and that is precisely where this road will lead.

3 thoughts on “Defining good governance in the modern era beyond spending money”

  1. Good job.
    “Those laws generally contain funding streams. Those funding streams are all-too frequently put to uses that benefit the politician pushing for the law in the first place, either through earmarks for pet projects, subsidies to favored industries, or direct payments to favored groups. “A good example of this is the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee that makes recommendations on the National Ambient Air Quality Standard limits. Trump put in a rule that members could not be on the Committee if they were receiving EPA funding but that was one of the first things that Biden revoked. In the near future they will roll out new limits on inhalable particulate levels because respiratory illnesses are on the rise. The fact that inhalable particulate levels have been going down for years is pretty well ignored especially by those who want to continue the funding stream for their work that says that this is a problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, I appreciate the kind words and couldn’t agree with you more. If you saw the headline yesterday, they plan to go after natural gas stoves. I can’t imagine anything more ridiculous, but no doubt there is a lot of money involved.

    Like

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