The Campaign Spot

Rating Hillary’s Reform Proposals

When you put out a ten point plan, chances are you’ll hit on at least one good idea. And chances are, at least one point will be bad, dumb, superfluous, pointless, or counterproductive. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton recently unveiled her agenda for “government reform” in a speech and the results are about what one would expect.

 

1. As President, Senator Clinton would permanently ban all Cabinet officials from lobbying her Administration once they’ve left office. When a Cabinet official has left government service, he or she should not be able to lobby their agency or former employees.

 

Sounds nice on paper, but how stringent will the standards be? When Hillary’s first Environmental Protection Agency director resigns, does this mean that person won’t be able to go to head up a environmental nonprofit, and call for other policy changes? They won’t be able to testify on Capitol Hill about further policy moves that person would like to see enacted? Isn’t that “lobbying”?

 

A few weeks back, 60 Minutes did a story on the number of congressional and federal agency staffers who went on to become highly-paid lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry shortly after the passage of a bill to add the prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program, including Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana. Hillary actually cited this as an example of what she wants to stamp out in her administration.

 

Rep. Tauzin will have to find his own defender. But for the staffers, particularly congressional staffers, I’m neither surprised nor all that outraged that after toiling on Capitol Hill or within a federal agency for particularly modest salaries for quite a few years, they “cashed in” their legislative experience by going to work for an employer that finds their experience, skills, and knowledge worth a whole lot more. We can claim that legislative assistants are more valuable to the running of our government than lobbyists, but the market doesn’t pay them that way. (Full congressional staff salaries can be found here; this survey found legislative assistants typically earn less than $50k. And while Washington’s not as expensive as New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, the nation’s capital is not a cheap place to live.)

 

My guess is, the private sector and Washington law and consulting firms find former Cabinet officials a lot more valuable than most other employers. They know how “the sausage is made” and their most marketable skill is ensuring that their employers’ interests are well represented in the legislative process. Until there’s a more lucrative alternative, most Cabinet officials will find that opportunity extraordinarily appealing.

 

I would also note that Hillary says in her speech, “people shouldn’t use what they’ve learned on the taxpayers’ dime to enrich themselves at our expense — and we’re going to put an end to it.” You mean something like someone recieving an $8 million book deal to write about her experience as first lady? Or a $13 million book deal to write about his presidency?

 

2. Senator Clinton would extend the whistleblower shield to all government employees and contractors to ensure normal access to jury trials in federal court to defend themselves when they speak out in the public interest.

 

I’ll admit, I don’t know enough about current controversies in whistleblower protection to know if this is really a worthwhile proposal. Sometimes a complaining worker is a genuine whistleblower; sometimes they’re just disgruntled over a lack of appreciation.

 

3. Modeled after the military service academies, the Public Service Academy would provide a four-year, federally subsidized college education for more than 5,000 students a year in exchange for a five-year commitment to public service following graduation. Graduates of the Academy would serve their country for five years, creating a new generation of young people dedicated to public service.

 

Ah, the “Young Bureaucrats of Tomorrow Scholarship Fund.” Let me give Hillary half-credit, or maybe a bit less, for spotting what I think is a genuine problem. As I’m sure anyone who’s spent even a year in the working world has learned, good managers are hard to find. (Good employees are hard to find, for that matter.) There’s a reason we laugh at the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert and Steve Carrell’s character in The Office.

 

The private sector is, nine times out of ten, going to be able to offer more pay and (probably) better perks than the public sector. So it’s hard to find good, competent, skilled people who really want to work for a federal agency for duration their careers. The job needs to offer you some sort of satisfaction that the private sector can’t match. For a federal agency like the Department of Defense, it’s probably easier (“You can’t blow up an al-Qaeda camp flying for Southwest Airlines, son”); but for a lot of middle management jobs –  human resources, payroll and budget management, facilities management, tech work, etc., federal agencies are not terribly alluring compared to the private sector.

 

So I don’t doubt that our federal agencies don’t have enough good managers. Most companies don’t have enough.

 

I’m not convinced that this proposal will “produce a new generation of law enforcement officers, of civil servants of experts who will dedicate themselves to public service,” as Hillary promises. I think it will take 5,000 high school students who were already thinking of government work and give them a full ride scholarship for their education.

 

4. Government contracts should be transparent, subject to public disclosure, open to intense competition and accessible on-line. According to the Project on Government Oversight, at least 45 percent of the $329 billion the federal government spent in fiscal year 2004 was awarded without competition. As President, Senator Clinton would restore the practice of competitive bidding except in times of national emergency, ending the abuse of no-bid contracts. She would post every contract online, inviting interested citizens to scrutinize the details and hold their government accountable.

 

Allow me to give Hillary one full-throated hurrah. The horror stories of ludicrously unaccountable government contracting ought to spur greater action: once one bad deal goes through without accountability, everyone else starts wondering if they can get a similar deal.

 

5. As President, Hillary would cut the number of contractors working for the federal government by 500,000 over the next ten years through an Executive Order, saving $10 to $18 billion a year. From 2002 to 2005, more than 2.4 million additional contractors had been placed on the federal payroll. As a result, there are approximately two times more contractors working for the federal government than the total number of military personnel and civil servants combined.

 

After the full-throated hurrah, one full-throated boo. The whole point of contractors is to make government more efficient by outsourcing tasks that federal departments and agencies don’t need to do themselves. (For example, why should the Department of Defense run its own cafeterias?) Government departments, agencies, and offices are nearly impossible to eliminate (As Reagan said, they are the closest thing to immortality on this earth). A government contract can be canceled, or simply not renewed if the goods or services are not up to snuff.

 

Greater scrutiny of private contracting is good; giving up and going back to having the government do these tasks is bad. This is simply a pad-the-bureaucracy proposal.

 

6. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) should be restored to provide authoritative and objective analysis of complex scientific and technical issues for the federal government. From 1974 to 1995, the OTA had been a small department in the federal government providing numerous, accurate reports for policymakers. As President, Hillary would work to restore the OTA and ensure that we restore the role of evidence and facts, not partisanship and ideology, to decision making.

 

First, why is Hillary pledging as president to restore a Congressional office? Why isn’t she calling up Nancy Pelosi and urging her to restart this? Congress could start the work to appropriate the funds tomorrow. 

 

(In fact, in her speech, Hillary seems to get a fact wrong: “Way back in the 1990s, the White House had an Office of Technology Assessment that was charged with just one task: telling us the truth about science.”)

 

Second, the New Atlantis did a great history of the OTA, laying out its strengths and weaknesses; here’s a key paragraph:

These hiring practices created a serious controversy in 1977, focused specifically on Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy had been a strong supporter of the agency from its inception; without his support it never would have received its initial funding. His close association with OTA caused many conservatives consternation even before the agency began operating: back in 1973, National Review worried that he was going to turn OTA into a “political weapon.” Kennedy was the chairman of the Technology Assessment Board during OTA’s first two years and became chairman again in 1977—when things blew up. In May 1977, Daddario abruptly resigned from OTA. A week later, a Republican member of the Technology Assessment Board quit because Kennedy had turned it into a “one-man operation.” Soon, even a prominent Democrat on the board accused Kennedy of using it for his “personal political purposes.” Of special concern was the widely-reported claim that Kennedy forced Daddario to quit so that a long-time Kennedy aide could be installed in his place. This incensed conservatives, like New York Times columnist William Safire, who wrote that OTA had become “the happy hunting ground for Kennedy apparatchiks,” and said “we can expect a flow of reports from the politicized Office of Technology Assessment in the future that will show how right Senator Kennedy is on everything from medical research to mass transit, with the scientific community’s seal of approval on everything that puts consumerism over the fight against inflation, environmentalism over employment.”

Even if the staffing were top-notch, the pace of work seemed out of tune with the legislative cycle. The article above noted that “typically, OTA reports would take 18 to 24 months to complete.” By the time the report was completed, a new Congress might be in place.

 

If you’re looking at this institution and asking yourself, “with members of Congress holding hearings and taking written and oral testimony from every expert under the sun, does Congress really need this?” you weren’t the only one:

Perhaps the most peculiar argument for shutting down OTA was the claim that the agency was an “unnecessary middleman” between legislators and experts. This argument seems to have originated with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said that members of Congress should get the information they need by interacting directly with scientists. As a Gingrich spokesman told a UPI reporter in 2004, “Why would you put a filter between you and a scientist?” There is a certain charm to the image of congressmen calling researchers to consult on questions of cutting-edge science, and there is no question that some members and committees sometimes do so. It also makes sense that the notion would come from Gingrich, who really does engage the scientific community, and who prophesies about the disappearance of middlemen in the present “age of transitions.” But it is overly simplistic to think of OTA simply as an extraneous filter or an eliminable middleman. At its best, the agency was a journalist, translator, and fact-checker all rolled into one.

The return of the OTA – one of the few Congressional agencies to ever be eliminated – would demonstrate that Congress is not interested in controlling its own spending. 

 

7.Every government agency should make its budget easily accessible to the public in a timely fashion. Specifically, budgets should be available online and with the related budget justification documents, already presented to Congress, to explain the rationale. All government agencies would publish all budget justification documents online within 48 hours of delivering those documents to Congress, except those that raise national security concerns. 

 

Not much objection, unless there’s a disagreement over what constitutes a “national security concern.” Although honestly, this information isn’t exactly hidden.

 

Unless the idea is to get down to the line-by-line budgeting, how much the Des Moines field office paid for staples, etc.

 

8. As President, Senator Clinton would create a new Results America Initiative, modernizing data collection to address critical gaps in our knowledge and making the findings available on the web so that citizens can get real-time information on a host of issues, from their local air quality to traffic flow to the conditions of critical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges and the electrical grid. Clinton proposed investing in cutting-edge information gathering technologies, such as wireless sensor networks, which allow for cost-effective real-time monitoring, and harness the information to provide more effective, data-driven policymaking.

What? 

My first instinct is that Senator Clinton wants to recreate your local news radio, “traffic and weather together every ten minutes.”

 

One of the troubling things about this proposal is that there’s no sense of cost, as well as not much of a sense of exactly how this real-time information would turn into more-effective, data-driven policymaking. If you asked a lawmaker what the biggest problem on their jobs is, how many would say, “not enough information”? Don’t they feel like they’re drowning in reports anyway? Wouldn’t we replace all these Congressionally-mandated reports no one reads with federally-mandated data that no one looks at?

 

9. In order to cut unnecessary corporate welfare, we need track it down. Senator Clinton proposes creating a Corporate Subsidy Information Service (CSIS), an agency with an annual budget equal to half that of the Congressional Budget Office – $15 million per year. The CSIS will identify recipients of corporate subsidies – who gets how much – and evaluate the effectiveness of these subsidies in promoting growth and opportunity. Not only will this help identify wasteful subsidies that should be eliminated, but it will help prevent new corporate welfare initiatives from taking root.

 

First, if enacted, this proposal is going to seriously complicate life for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (“Good morning, this is CSIS… no, you’re looking for the other one.”)

 

Anyway, we have to spend $15 million to eliminate wasteful spending?

 

Speaking of eliminating redundancies, doesn’t this create a federal agency to do the job of Citizens Against Government Waste?

 

Couldn’t the existing Congressional Research Service or the Congressional Budget Office do these sorts of tasks, identifying recipients of corporate subsidies?

 

10. Senator Clinton has proposed the Count Every Vote Act (CEVA) which promotes the accuracy, integrity, and security of the election process by requiring the preservation of a voter-verified paper ballot that serves as the official record of any recount and random mandatory audit. It demands improved security measures for electronic voting machines and takes steps to reduce voting errors. CEVA would also make it easier to vote by absentee ballot and would improve poll worker training.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m just going to turn over the response to George Will:

The Count Every Vote Act, which might better be called the What’s a Little Fraud Among Friends? Act, reflects monomania—the idea that anything that increases the number of ballots cast is wonderful. So the act would make Election Day a federal holiday—and would require states to have Election Day registration, which is an invitation to fraud… 

 

It would override all states’ disenfranchisement laws by giving felons the right to vote.  The bill stipulates that there are 4.7 million felons—one in 44 adults—disenfranchised to various degrees under state laws. All states except Maine and Vermont prohibit inmates from voting. Some states ban voting by felons on probation or parole or even those who are no longer under any supervision by the criminal-justice system. 

 

Notably, in her speech, Hillary said nothing about voter fraud, or eliminating people voting in two states, or establishing that a voter is the citizen says he his. Let me concur with a common refrain at Instapundit – it makes no sense to ensure the security of voting machines if we do nothing to verify the identity of those who show up and vote at them. Garbage in, garbage out.

 

So by my count… three, three and a half good-to-middling proposals out of ten? And a couple of awful ones?  

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