Left, Right, and Center Agree Big Government Doesn’t Work - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Left, Right, and Center Agree Big Government Doesn’t Work
U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. (Lane V. Erickson/Shutterstock)

Government Executive public administration expert Donald F. Kettl has recently come to the painful conclusion that the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership 2025 proposal on government reform is “a thoughtful but piercing critique of the existing civil service system.”

As Kettl notes, the Heritage government personnel chapter charges — with some evidence — that Washington’s “bureaucracy cannot even meet its own civil service ideal,” quoting yours truly from the proposal. The chapter contributors believe that the failure is “rooted in the progressive ideology that unelected experts can and should be trusted to promote the general welfare in just about every area of social life.” Kettl notes the proposal concludes that “[m]odern progressive politics has simply given the national government more to do than the complex separation-of-powers Constitution allows.” He finds that conservatives are now uniting behind these propositions, and, “in the storm that’s gathering on the horizon, the case for good government through the merit system is under growing—and powerful—assault.”

It is bad enough that conservatives are opposed, but Kettl warns that even centrist Philip Howard’s NOT Accountable makes a “powerful case against the power of public employee unions,” the constitutional questions they raise, and the fact that “[a]ccountability is basically nonexistent in American government.” Howard finds that “[p]olice unions, teachers unions and other public sector unions have built a fortress against supervisory decisions.” He claims that “unions in America are engines of selfishness—partisan machines dedicated to their own self-interest.” They “disempower elected officials from managing government,” preventing them from exercising their “constitutional obligations.”

But it is even worse for the status quo than Kettl demonstrates. The institution that has been the primary intellectual and political support for the progressive administrative state since its inception also has serious concerns, as demonstrated in a new Brookings Institution report titled “What Americans still want from government reform” and written by Paul C. Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, who presents reform advice to President Joe Biden. But the data will be more helpful to critics — if they pay attention.

The study begins with the fact that 74 percent of Americans today believe the national government performs poorly or merely fairly well, with only 23 percent saying it performs well or excellently. While only slightly more than in 2021, this high unfavourability has pretty much been the same since the 1970s (except under President Ronald Reagan) and is the most important reason why no other recent president has been able to serve two terms followed by a president of his same party.

Just as important, ever since the 1960s Great Society growth of government, polls have shown that Americans have been divided between preferring a larger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services, the later more dominant since Reagan. There has been a more equal balance between the two alternatives recently, with both recent party presidential nominees more favorable to bigger government. Yet even then only 44 percent wanted larger government, and 59 percent demanded major reform of that government, with 29 percent saying only some change was required and merely 6 percent saying not much reform of government was necessary.

Light combines both poll questions to estimate a four-part division of the population into categories he labels as “expanders,” those favoring bigger government and requiring only minor reform; “rebuilders,” those favoring large government but demanding major administrative reforms; “streamliners,” those favoring smaller government and fewer services but also demanding national reform; and “dismantlers,” those supporting major changes toward smaller government and questioning whether national reform of bureaucracy is even possible.

The problem for Light, Biden, and Democrats is that their base of expanders has gone down from 43 percent in 1997 to 19 percent today, while the Republican-base dismantlers have gone up from 24 percent to 44 percent. Both parties are split among the different types, but dismantlers accounted for 44 percent of Republicans, with streamliners in second position with 20 percent, having its top two groups agreeing on smaller national government and fewer services. This results in a more united two-thirds Republican-base support. The Democrat base of support, however, now finds big government expanders in second position at only 26 percent, while less pro-national government rebuilders were 42 percent of Democrats, making holding their core together much more difficult.

Light concludes that expanding the rebuilders is essential for future Democrat success. But he reports that Democrat support for Biden is very low, and especially low on rebuilders’ defining issue of running the government more effectively. Light even provides objective measures of how recent presidents have actually run the government, and Biden’s tenure was the worst. So, Biden is especially vulnerable, since rebuilders are factually correct about perceiving poor performance during his presidency.

The Brookings report does not mention it, but this is all good news for Republicans, and especially for conservatives. Objectively, presidents have not been able to fix big government; voters recognize this, and smaller government is popular. And there is little reason even for small government conservatives not to support national reforms for necessary national functions even if they will be different than the ones supported by the Brookings Institution. This data actually is a warning to the Right not to move too far toward its small 17 percent minority of big government rebuilders.

The most revealing data in the Brookings report actually comes near the conclusion, when Light presents extensive factual data on recent presidential administration “breakdowns” and different administrative reform efforts to fix them. Biden, in fact, has produced the fewest number of “major” administrative reforms compared to any of the last 15 presidential administrations (although it is early for him), but he has already presided over more serious “government breakdowns” than any recent presidency.

What the Brookings numbers show (but is not specified in the text) is that Reagan presided over the second-largest number of Congress-passed administrative reforms since data were collected in 1945. And — more importantly — Reagan allowed fewer number of major government administrative “breakdowns” than any following presidency.

For conservatives, the best policy takeaway from the experts on government reform — whether from left, right, or center — is, once again, to “follow Reagan.”

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