Positive Policy #9: Governing

Every Friday until November, I’ll be perusing a policy proposal (or a few) of the Dem challengers for the White House to see what changes are being promised under a potential new Administration.

The idea of government reform is one that I will struggle to convey the true importance of — not because I don’t believe there is a lot to say about it, but because it is a topic I find frankly overwhelming. There are plenty of areas I could hammer on at length, with respect to the day-to-day of administrivia: the dangers of letting “acting” leaders gallop around executive offices with no oversight, issuing orders that get in the way of their agency’s missions; the many hackneyed ways the federal workforce is jerked around and scapegoated for the whims of political leaders; or the internecine conflicts that push agency against agency, in turf wars over comically minor matters.

But that’s not what this is. Those things happen in private industry too. Those are universal challenges of the workplace. This is the matter of to whom our elected leadership is answerable. It’s an area I dread to contemplate, because it’s where government (⬆️) meets politics (⬇️).

They’re easy topics to conflate, but they are wholly separate domains. Politics is the art of persuasion, to rack up the support that grants leaders legitimacy. Government is the day-to-day activity of administering public services. Injecting politics into government — whether using government property like the White House as a campaign prop, demanding financial contributions to get bureaucratic things done, or using state resources to punish your personal enemies — erases the line between them in a way detrimental to the public good. This is a concern that has beset the republic for centuries; the current professional civil service was instituted in the 1880s after the incompetence and corruption of the winner-take-all spoils system after the Civil War made government jobs a giveaway boondoggle. We risk falling into that trap again today.

This is (not surprisingly, if you’ve spent any time with my first eight tours through the Biden policy table) a very chewy set of proposals. Of course it begins with campaign finance reform—turning to public funds for elections, overturning Citizens United, ending dark money, and restricting political action committees (PACs) — because the corrosive effects of money in politics is such an obvious target, any ethical actor would want to put it front and center.

Speaking of the E-word, the plan proposes setting up a Commission on Federal Ethics, an agency to centralize information on and oversight of campaign finance, financial disclosures, and lobbying across the U.S. Government. (Commissioners would be a bipartisan group of Senate-confirmed experts serving staggered 10-year terms.) These three subject areas appear repeatedly across the plan. The first I’ve already mentioned.

  • The financial disclosure proposals argue that both high-level executive appointees as well as candidates for federally-elected positions should be required to release tax returns to allow for the public review of where their assets came from; they also mention closing the loophole of obscuring one’s holdings through the use of personal trusts.
  • Lobbying will be held to a higher level of transparency, requiring disclosure of meetings with elected officials, and fully barring the influence of foreign governments. It will be interesting to see if this will encompass groups like ALEC that package pre-written legislation preferential to their corporate sponsors.

These reforms, as well as an Executive Order barring White House staff from influencing Department of Justice decision-making, and legislation strengthening whistleblower protections and enhancing the independence of Inspectors General, comprise a very wonky set of ideas. They would be idealistic and uncontroversial in normal times, but after the past four years the mere declaration of a desire for an ethical approach to government serves as a searing contrast. If even a portion of these reform policies are enacted, it would mark a positive step toward rebuilding trust in a government of, by, and for the people.

It’s go time.

previously: PosPol 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8