Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.-- Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky 1829.
What would Henry Clay say now as yet another government shutdown looms, and bitter political shenanigans actually damage government and embitter its professionals. Politicians have always hurled invectives and exploited scandal, maneuvered for advantage, employed delaying tactics, and sprung procedural surprises. They have vetoed good bills and overridden bad vetoes, delayed or defeated confirmations and targeted elections -- all fair game in the rambunctiousness and chaos of healthy, open democracies.
But this time it's different. Americans used to expect, as a minimum, that our leaders would try to make government efficient, responsive, effective, and even somewhat economical. It was an honor to serve- anywhere- in government.
Few would make such claims now. Government has become a Pyrrhic battlefield where scorched-earth tactics are commonplace and wreak havoc on government functions and people as the parties vie for political advantage.
Good government has all but disappeared as a goal. In its place, sequestration, government shutdowns, interminable delays of appointment comnfirmations, a failure to budget, and badgering and neglecting the federal workforce have demoralized government workers, wasted millions, perhaps billions, of dollars, and wrecked the effectiveness of government programs authorized by Congress.
Few Americans recognize that sequestration, a doomsday policy that neither party really desired to implement, is still strangling national defense, the Veterans Administration and nearly every other aspect of the federal government. Far from being an effective cost-cutting measure, sequestration has managed to waste money while making government function less efficiently.
Since 1974, when Congress passed a law to require itself to pass a budget each year, a real budget has been achieved in only four of the succeeding years. The government has been shut down nearly 20 times. Even when a shutdown is merely threatened, government departments and agencies have to stop their work and prepare for a shutdown. The families of federal employees, already affected by pay freezes, have to worry about unplanned and unpaid furloughs. No wonder many federal workers feel unappreciated and consider leaving the federal workforce. No organization can survive where its leaders do not honor, respect and provide due compensation to its workers.
Nomination and confirmation of government’s leaders has always been a complicated proposition. The time to complete Senate confirmation has grown from an average of 30 days in 1981 (when the Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House) to over 80 days in 1999 (when President Clinton faced a Republican Senate.) In 2014, over 100 executive branch nominees had been waiting an average of 210 days, according to Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post. Sometimes the administration has been slow to nominate, but a contributing cause is that the Senate has made the confirmation process so slow and excruciating that the pool of candidates willing to undergo the ordeal has shrunk, also a detriment to good government.
Officials who are in an “acting” capacity do what they can, but the fact remains that decisions get deferred, programs are not initiated or pushed and crises are not adequately prepared for when confirmed leaders are not in place. Departments with “acting” heads are often put on the back burner until the real chief is confirmed. Unfortunately, domestic and world crises will not wait on Senate confirmation.
Continually and purposely damaging the functioning of government cannot go on. It is not an abstract what-if. It is real.
Most Americans agree that we should have limited government and with it controlled spending, but destroying the functions of government and oppressing its workforce are not credible means of limiting government. Government for the people and the people’s benefit means treating the functions of government as something to be respected. It is entrusted to our political leaders for safekeeping.
Let’s stop using our government itself as a punching bag. Why not encourage both political parties to adopt a “good government plank” as part of their 2016 platforms and require them to agree that government shutdowns are not a proper political tool and that these mindless sequesters should be terminated and replaced with an actual budget process.
They could tell the American public that they intend to deliver budgets on time. They could agree that nominations should be made, processed and either confirmed or denied promptly. They could agree that, like our military, our federal workforce is a precious national asset that should be nurtured, not neutered. These are not impossible goals.
And if a party cannot promise good government as a minimum requirement, and show us a way to achieve it, what legitimacy can its other promises have?
Barnett served 32 years in the U.S. Navy. He is a former chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC and now is a partner in the law firm of Venable LLP in Washington, D.C.