The Agenda

Philip K. Howard’s Big Change Agenda

Like many of you, I am feeling wired and anxious about tomorrow. We read and think about and obsess over policy and politics because we think it matters. And though there are relatively few of us who think either major political party represents an unalloyed force for good, we choose sides because, as a friend once told me, the parties represent opposing sides in deep and enduring disagreements about how we should structure our public life, and we want to make our side smart and strong enough to prevail — and to deserve to prevail.  

But governing inevitably entails making compromises and strategic concessions, and so I’ve always been drawn to Philip K. Howard’s efforts to frame the streamlining of government as a centrist, pragmatic cause. His recent post offering a “big change” agenda struck me as intelligent and attractive. It is the kind of agenda that could, at least in theory, win over at least some open-minded moderates and liberals, which is something that those of us on the right will have to do as today’s twenty-somethings age:

1. Transform Public Healthcare. Transition Medicare and Medicare to a single provider — an accountable care organization contracting with the government to provide all a recipient’s needs. The current fee-for-service system wastes $200-300 billion annually.

2. Radically simplify regulation. Bureaucracy discourages jobs. End bureaucratic central planning, and refocus regulation on goals and governing principles. Make people accountable for results, not compliance. Appoint commissions in each area to recommend “spring cleanings” of accumulated regulation.

3. Force Congress to set priorities. Sunset laws should put all programs up for review every 10 years. Change the rules of Congress to end partisan stalemate. It’s impossible to balance the budget without rethinking old entitlements and subsidies. Obsolete programs waste at least $100 billion annually.

4. Restore accountability to public service. The civil service system is broken, making sensible public management almost impossible and smothering good public servants. End the presumption of lifetime tenure. Protect against partisan personnel decisions by a neutral civil service review board.

5. End benefits for the rich. Means-test public subsidies, including tax deductions.

6. Simplify the tax code. Start over with a simple, transparent schedule of rates. End most corporate subsidies. Lower the corporate tax rate to match other countries and encourage repatriation of offshore capital.

7. Make justice reliable. America has become the defensive society. Doctors practice defensive medicine. Entrepreneurs fear a ruinous verdict. Unreliable justice is a drag on job creation. Restore predictability as a core goal of justice, giving judges responsibility to draw boundaries of reasonable claims. Create special health courts, saving over $50-100 billion annually.

8. Bulldoze school bureaucracy. What do forms and rules have to do with inspiring students? Bureaucracy can’t teach. Give principals and teachers back the freedom to do their jobs.

Some of Howard’s proposals are more attractive than others. Conservatives can unhesitatingly endorse (2), (4), (6), (7), and (8). (1) would demand careful consideration, as there are some functions within the Medicaid program that are best integrated with other services offered at the state level. (3) binds together a number of discrete issues, and I might endorse some, e.g., reforming the filibuster, reducing the number of appointed offices that require Senate confirmation etc., while not endorsing others, e.g., sunset clauses might actually dramatically increase the influence of lobbyists by creating new battles over extending various popular programs and provisions. The desire to means-test as expressed in (5) should be balanced against concern over implicit marginal tax rates. All that said, there is much to like about Howard’s agenda, and one hopes that there will be room for strange bedfellows’ coalitions in advancing it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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