The Speed of Governance

Author: Gary Hart

William Becker, the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and a former colleague at the University of Colorado, raises an interesting and important question: is the speed of change generally and technological change particularly outrunning our ability to respond with public policies when required.  In other words, is governing too slow when the world all around us is experiencing revolutionary change.

Here are some examples Bill provided with his question:

“Regulators and electric utilities are scrambling to keep up with the rapid growth of rooftop solar energy. Several states are embroiled in controversies over how to compensate customers feeding energy into the grid.

“One or two ideas on how to address the lag-time problem. For example, lawmakers could give more discretion to elected leaders to make policy adjustments when the need arises. If Congress or states decide to price carbon, they could give public officials the power to adjust carbon prices within a specified range when an adjustment is needed to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“Another possibility would be for the federal government — the White House perhaps, or the Congressional Research Service — to have a standing futures group that analyzes trends and issues periodic public analyses of what’s on the horizon.

“The futures group could draw on the analyses already being done and scattered across agencies — DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review, the military’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Climate Assessments, weather trends from NOAA, earth science analyses from NASA, and so on. FEMA might weigh in on weather disasters, Agriculture on national soil and water conditions, etc.  The key would be to make the information as localized as possible so that state and local officials can act on it.”

So, as he shows, there are ways to speed up governance by anticipation, rather than delayed reaction.

Conservatism works when circumstances are quiet.  It is frustrated when the world we experience requires adaptability.  New realities require new policies and methods.  As Heraclitus wrote more than two millennia ago, you can’t step in the same river twice.

Here a distinction is important: fundamental principles abide and should not be tailored to fit changing circumstances.  But what must change to accommodate new realities are programs and policies.  A warming climate is foremost among those new realities, as are nuclear proliferation, a host of new technologies, the opioid epidemic, the rise of China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the list goes on.

It would be convenient if simple slogans, rely on markets for example, solved all problems.  Were that so we would have affordable health care for all Americans without Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and so forth.  The same would be true of climate change.  Leave it to the markets.

Alas, markets cannot and do not solve all problems.  There are many realities, old and new, that simply cannot be addressed by reliance on the profit motive.

But when the changing times require a public policy response the institutions of government cannot be stymied by rigid ideologies, old slogans, and rhetoric.  The Government of the United States is not functional.  Its elected representatives in the executive and legislative branches have substituted slogans, and worn out ones at that, for ideas and solutions.

Public anger is directed at those who refuse to adapt, to compromise (on policies, once again, not principles), to put nation over party, even though the voters who elected these officials more often than not did so out of partisan motives.  You can’t have it both ways…rigid partisanship and functioning government.

The Founders clearly understood that the government they created had specified duties and responsibilities, but they did not design it for maximum efficiency.  Checks and balances were all about preventing the consolidation of power in a few hands.  Nevertheless, in a revolutionary era such as we are now experiencing public institutions must function effectively and should use state of the art technologies to help do so.

Why is it that we can lead the world in sophisticated military equipment but not do so in the areas of domestic need, such as health, energy, and environmental protection?

Given current political stalemate, it is difficult to imagine a concerted effort to increase the speed of governance.  If your slogan is that “the government is the problem” then you have no interest in making it operate more effectively.

A crisis of one kind or another will, sooner rather than later, force us to decide as a nation.  Either we agree to make our government more effective at dealing with dramatically changing conditions or we insist on dysfunctional governance and accelerate the long, slow decline into mediocracy and join other major political powers throughout the ages, powers who shuffled off the stage of history for their refusal to deal effectively with new realities.


4 Responses to “The Speed of Governance”

  1. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    What a wonderful opportunity for those of us from the mid 20th Century and earlier to team up with the generations that are truly tech savvy and who understand and appreciate why so many of us from the earlier generations love the principles this nation was founded on and why we want these principles preserved as the bedrock of the society we live in.

    The newer generations would definitely need to feel we have sincerely admitted that they really matter with regards to America’s future and have evidence that we are starting to behave respectfully toward them and maybe even love them for what they are; America’s future. I am convinced that the young people’s enthusiasm for Life coupled with the accumulated Wisdom of the senior generations may be what we need to turbo charge the speed of governance and make it functional. In my view, its all about the positive relationships we can choose to establish among ourselves that will not only preserve this republic but make it flourish. I would ask the newer generations if we could work together to make America a place we could all enjoy together. Once the bond is made the rest is just technical.

  2. Edward Goldstick Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I agree 100% with the spirit of your post, and yearn for a return to thoughtful governance with a combination of reasonable if diverse representation and a professional and essentially nonpartisan bureaucracy that can respond together with both vision and deft…

    I will, however, politely disagree with your statement that “You can’t have it both ways…rigid partisanship and functioning government.” because you can IF the majority is so large that it can function with impunity AND/OR there is enough inherent heterogeneity on all sides for crossover where common interests and ideas lie (for better and for worse, of course).

    Alas, neither of those conditions prevails any longer in our society (for better and for worse). You speak of crises that act as catalysts for change, whether natural disasters or catastrophes of purely human origins, but I still believe that individual leaders both in the flesh as well as in their roles that they help form into enduring institutions are as important as the unanticipated external forces that are, perhaps, the principal drivers of human history…

    … and as the saying goes, a fish rots from the head down. I am obviously not a fan of the current Speaker, but he has done nothing to demonstrate a willingness to put country before party. I am more convinced than ever, as I have argued here and elsewhere in the past, that changing the manner that we choose and empower the Speaker of the House could go a long way towards creating a more effective Congress both in terms of “regular order” and in those extraordinary circumstances that are always around the corner, often unseen as we approach but for which preparations can be laid.

    Can anyone imagine Trump participating in a table top exercise on the Big One in California or a Chernobyl? But the problem is not limited to Trump and the GOP, their acceleration of the process notwithstanding; for example, take the North Korean conundrum that ANY new POTUS in 2017 would have face: it is obvious (imho) that we would be just as concerned if someone other than Trump – even a Democrat – was using all the classic diplomatic language in the current circumstances that did not develop overnight…

    … and whether in this context or in the more immediate context of the horribly tragic if predictable events that transpired yesterday in Charlottesville, would we not hope that the President would meet with the leadership of the Congress, both as an institution and as a representative body, to formulate a clear and coordinated response without wanting to turn it into political capital or to avoid the political price to be paid?

    It is time that the Speaker and other key leaders such as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court should be held to a higher standard throughout their tenure…

  3. Edward Goldstick Says:

    Senator et al.,

    Six days have passed and much seems to have transpired since my post on the morning of 8/13, so this may seem strange to some but I am more convinced than ever of this proposition… though it is obvious that Trump, McConnell, Ryan, and the rest of the GOP leadership is failing in every way imaginable.

    What else can I say?

    PS: I imagine that others who frequent your forum will have contributed in the meantime… so thank you all for your comments past, present, and future…

  4. Edward Goldstick Says:

    Senator et al.,

    Six days have passed and much seems to have transpired since my post on the morning of 8/13, so this may seem strange to some but I am more convinced than ever of this proposition… though it is obvious that Trump, McConnell, Ryan, and the rest of the GOP leadership is failing in every way imaginable.

    What else can I say?

    PS: I imagine that others who frequent your forum will have contributed in the meantime… so thank you all for your comments past, present, and future… and thanks to Gary Hart for having created a space for those like myself who appreciate it as an oasis offering substantive reflection…

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