Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land is a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A. Heinlein.  I have borrowed his title as a lead in to reporting on my experiences of moving to Washington, DC, and paying much more attention to how the US government operates, including its role in the economy and society more broadly.

My basic understanding of government came from high school civics.  Key elements include the Constitution, three branches of government, and two political parties — one conservative and one liberal.  I grew up in New England in the 1950s and 60s.  My family was moderate Republican – Edward Brooke, John Chafee, Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles Percy, Elliot Richardson, Nelson Rockefeller, et al.

I moved to the Midwest in the mid 70s and the South in the 80s.  Everything had changed.  Most moderate Republicans had disappeared.  Beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Democratic South had transformed into the Republican South.  In the process, the Christian Right paved the way for the Tea Party.

In the past couple of decades, collaboration and negotiation have disappeared.  Compromise has become impossible, thwarted by ideologies and fueled by 24×7 news coverage that converts any minor tiff into a national buffet of pundits waxing endlessly on the significance and likely outcomes of trivial disagreements.  The public has become addicted to riveting reports of – well, nothing.

Last year, I had a chance to talk in depth with a former White House official, in both the Bush and Obama administrations.  Among many questions, and much give and take, I asked him why at least a few obviously good ideas, to which virtually anybody would agree, do not make it through the hurdles of authorization and appropriation.  Was ideology really in the way?

He said ideology was seldom the problem.  If one party has a great idea that the other party agrees is a great idea, the other party will still work to defeat the idea because they do not want the party with the idea to get credit for it.  They would rather see large numbers of people continue to suffer than have the other party get credit for relieving the suffering.

These insights and recent experiences have caused me to draft Seven Habits of Successful Members of Congress.

  1. Gain or retain power
  2. Get elected or reelected
  3. Minimize opponents’ success
  4. Undermine opponents’ initiatives
  5. Cultivate doubts about opponents’ intent, integrity and morality
  6. Support legislation that causes special interests to provide resources to accomplish Goals 1-5
  7. Initiate legislation that provides talking points that support accomplishing Goals 1-5

These habits are rank ordered – no. 1 is more important than no. 2, which is more important than no. 3, and so on.

Those Members of Congress who exhibit these habits – and not all do – have no interest in benefitting the public unless this is of value to retaining power, getting reelected, etc.  How might we get around this situation and create a functional governance enterprise?

Singapore provides an interesting example.  If we followed their model, we would have a highly educated, very well paid cadre of leaders to run the country.  Once approved, they would not be subject to Congressional oversight.  However, they would be required to create business-oriented goals and plans, as well as achieve the outcomes specified in these plans.  Collectively, they could pass laws and regulations.  They would run the public sector.

Congress would have only three duties.  First, Congress would approve the Federal budget.  This budget would consist of one number – the total – and members of Congress could approve this budget or not.  If the budget were not approved, government would immediately shut down.  Second, Congress would approve nominees for the highest posts – the Secretary of each Department and Supreme Court Justices.

Third, members of Congress would devote all remaining time to getting reelected.  There would be no Congressional committees, although members would be free to give endless speeches on any topic.   This would give them something to do, despite it having no impact on government operations.  The aforementioned highly educated, very well paid cadre of leaders would make all operational evaluations.

Once the Secretary of each Department was nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress, both would have minimal power over the affairs of the Department.  A Secretary could only be replaced if they failed to create publicly acceptable business-oriented goals and plans, as well as achieve the outcomes specified in these plans.  It would not be unusual for a Secretary to move from one Department to another after four years or so.  This would avoid someone overstaying their usefulness in one role, while also retaining their expertise.

Departments would be answerable directly to the public.  The attractiveness and effectiveness of their goals and plans would be assessed via nationwide polling conducted using secure, online services.  The news networks would focus on apolitical discussions and debates on these goals and plans.  A Secretary would be replaced if the public found their goals and plans wanting.  This would result in new nomination and confirmation processes to replace the leadership of the Department.

Competency and accountability would reign over rhetoric and ideology.  Presidents would run for reelection based on the quality of the team they built.  Members of Congress would run for reelection based on their efficacy in fulfilling their three responsibilities.  Consequently, leaders in government would learn to deliver value to the public and the public would learn to expect value.  Wouldn’t that be strange?

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