Our Government is Failing Us

Gary Shapiro

12/30/2011 12:01:00 AM - Gary Shapiro

Americans agree – our federal government is not doing right by us. The Executive Branch seems out of control. A recent CNN poll found 63 percent of Americans disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the economy. Congress can’t get its act together. Eight-four percent of Americans disapprove of its performance.

Despite the fact that the great majority of government agencies and bodies have good people doing their best to serve the nation (think of the military for example), the fact is that we have some highly visible bad apples hurting our nation and its competitiveness. Here are a few examples:

Four of the five Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Commissioners – two Democrats and two Republicans – have revolted and said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has gone off the reservation. No one seems to know how to deal with the situation and, despite Congressional hearings, the White House has not stepped up and sought to relieve the chairman of his gavel.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) sought to close down a new Boeing facility and has issued several rules making it more difficult to hire employees. Again the White House is quiet as jobs go away.

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco and Firearms facilitated gun sales to Mexico, and the guns are being used to commit crimes including the killing of U.S. federal agents. Despite being aware of this operation, the Department of Justice misled Congress, and no one has yet to take responsibility.

The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service sent armed federal agents into Gibson Guitars on speculation it used wood to build its legendary guitars that was not processed according to another nation’s laws.

American innovators now go overseas with their new products and drugs thanks to the Food and Drug Administration’s legendary sluggishness in reviewing and approving new products.

Potential visitors do not come to the United States because of burdensome visa requirements, and our travel industry has stagnated while the rest of the world’s has gone up 38 percent in the last 10 years.

The Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have proposed and issued scores of new rules and proposals that most businesses have trouble simply tracking, much less observing.

The White House seems to have avoided getting involved with any of these missteps. The president, especially in 2011, seems more focused on dividing the nation and running for re-election rather than resolving any of these issues. The president did exercise leadership by creating a bipartisan deficit commission, but then he ignored its findings, leading to the summer’s government shutdown crisis.

Amazingly, Congress has been worse. The Democrat-controlled Senate is where political nominations and budget proposals go to die. The Senate rejected the president’s budget but did not produce one of its own. Every proposal is filibustered by someone, and few good ideas come from what was once the world’s most deliberative body.

While by objective measures the House has improved under the Republican majority leadership (no more 2,000-page bills; all members can offer amendments to legislation; sufficient time is now given to read legislation rather than requiring members to read it after they vote on it; all Committees engage in meaningful debate), the partisan rhetoric and squabbling has not ended, and the anti-tax pledging Republicans have hamstrung negotiations on critical issues.

Indeed, Congress is so impotent that it can’t even cut mail delivery one day a week despite billions in losses at the U.S. Postal Service due to the rise of the Internet. No wonder only 15 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good job.

If we’re going to remedy the lack of leadership, we need to redefine our understanding of what makes a good president or member of Congress. We have to stop electing people based on the feel-good easy solutions they propose, and start looking for candidates who are committed to talking about the national sacrifice that will be required – across the board – to get us back on top.

My criterion for president is a leader who will unite us around a common cause, such as implementing an innovation-based strategy preserving our children’s future. President Obama’s proposals – and his would-be Republican opponents’ debates – need to get past boilerplate rhetoric and talk details on what they will actually do to restore America.

I, for one, want a leader who will talk about triage, priorities and strategy. A leader should have real experience and know the budget process, but also be honest and empathetic to the fact that every cut will hurt some Americans.

As to Congress, I defer to a group I am affiliated with, No Labels, which last week offered a series of practical rule changes that would force Congress to do a better job. Among them: tying Congressional pay to a balanced budget, requiring up or down votes on all nominees within 60 days of nomination, and a regular question period for the president and cabinet secretaries (like the British). Even simple measures like changing the seating so the parties sit together will allow real human interaction that could overcome the warring parties.

This is the season of hope. But hope alone won’t save us. If we don’t change course and try something different our kids will blame us for screwing up their future. And they will be right.