A radical centrist platform for 2020

Centrist politics don’t offer the passion of absolutist solutions. In the words of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezLawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief Pelosi, Democratic leaders seek to quell liberal revolt over border bill Bronx restaurants thank Ocasio-Cortez for her endorsements MORE (D-N.Y.): “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh.’”  

But electoral success in 2020 likely will hinge on who attracts the centrist voters. One issue seems to unite most Americans: Frustration with how government works. Political scientist Paul Light recently found 63 percent of voters support “very major reform” of federal government, up from 37 percent 20 years ago.    

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For several decades, Americans have elected “outsider” candidates who promise some version of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden to debate for first time as front-runner John Kerry: Play based on Mueller report is 'an act of public service' Obama photographed alongside Clooney on boat in Italy MORE’s “change we can believe in.” Yet nothing much changes. The elections of Obama and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE can be viewed as symptoms of unrequited reform. When Obama’s promise of change got bogged down, 8 million Obama voters turned around and voted for Trump. Now Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” is headed towards futility, amounting to little more than reversing Obama-era executive orders.   

What’s missing is a governing vision that makes Americans part of the solution. Only then can leaders attract the popular mandate needed to overcome the resistance of Washington. Only then will there be a principled basis for officials and citizens to make practical choices going forward.   

The best model for modern government is to revive the framework of democratic responsibility designed by the Framers: Replace red tape with human responsibility at all levels of society. This governing vision, though centrist, requires a radical simplification of Washington bureaucracies.  

Over the past 50 years, almost without anyone noticing as it happened, the jungle of red tape in Washington has grown progressively denser — at this point 150 million words of detailed statutes and regulations (over 180,000 pages of the Code of Federal Regulations and over 40,000 pages of the U.S. Code). The effects of this build-up include bureaucratic paralysis and pervasive micromanagement of daily choices throughout society.  

Bureaucracy is staggeringly costly. Common Good’s 2015 report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” found that a six-year delay in permitting infrastructure more than doubles the effective cost of projects. Twenty states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers in their schools, mainly to comply with legal reporting requirements. The administrative costs of American health care are estimated to be as much as 30 percent — that’s about $1 trillion, or $1 million per physician.   

Bureaucracy is a prime source of voter alienation. Many Americans today don’t feel free to be themselves — almost any decision, comment, joke, or child’s play activity can involve legal risk. Rule books tell us how to correctly run schools and provide social services. Small businesses are put in an almost impossible position of being regulated by multiple agencies with detailed requirements — a family-owned apple orchard in New York state, for example, is regulated by about 5,000 rules from 17 different regulatory programs. Fear of offending employees leads many companies to impose speech codes that, studies suggest, exacerbate discriminatory feelings.

Since Ronald Reagan’s tenure in the White House, the Republican mantra has been deregulation. Yet what frustrates most Americans is not public goals, such as safeguarding against unsafe work conditions, but micromanaging exactly how to organize a safe workplace with thousands of detailed rules. One-size-fits-all regulations often drive Americans to resistance, because rigid rules don’t honor tradeoffs, local circumstances, or a sense of proportion in enforcement.    

This reform vision is simple: Focus regulation on goals and guidelines. Simpler codes will allow Americans to understand what is expected of them and will afford them flexibility to get there in their own ways. The reform is also radical: Legacy bureaucracies must be largely replaced with these simpler codes. Detailed rules would be limited to areas such as effluent limits where specificity is essential. The resulting regulatory overhaul would be historic, comparable in magnitude to the Progressive Era.  

Area by area, recodification commissions would propose to Congress new codes. Public goals that require practical choices, such as overseeing safe and adequate services, would allow flexibility and local innovation. Instead of Big Brother breathing down our necks, Washington would be more like a distant uncle, intervening only when citizens or local officials transcended boundaries of reasonableness.  

Not that long ago, that’s how government was organized. The Interstate Highway Act in 1956 was 29 pages long. Ten years later, over 20,000 miles of highway had been built. By contrast, the most recent highway bill was almost 500 pages long, and implemented by thousands of pages of regulations.  

Law is more effective when people focus on goals. The Constitution is only 15 pages long, but its principles nonetheless are effective to protect our freedoms. Agencies where officials take responsibility for ultimate goals, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with its focus on disease reduction, accomplish more than those such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is organized around rote compliance with thousands of rules.

No one designed the current bureaucratic tangle. It just grew and grew more, as each ambiguity sprouted a new rule. Leaders can’t lead it, because the rules trump common sense. But that’s precisely why a new movement is needed. Legacy bureaucracies never fix themselves.

Philip K. Howard is chair of Common Good and author of the new book “Try Common Sense” (W.W. Norton, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @PhilipKHoward.