The Central Issue of Election 2016?

In any election, when a strong challenger goes up against the incumbent power structure, the central issue is whether you’re better off then you were when that power structure took office. At the very least, it’s a question of whether the government was run competently by those in power. Certainly, one of the things New York real estate developer Donald Trump tapped into on his way to the Republican presidential nomination is the profound feeling held by many Americans that government just doesn’t work — and his opponent certainly helped matters much.

If there’s anything that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s management of the State Department made clear, it’s that trusting government agencies to operate properly may be too much to ask.

It may be it’s that government has become too big to manage. It may be that it tries to do too many things. It may be staffed by incompetents more concerned about work rules and pay bumps than outcomes. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t work, and the people are fed up with it and are demanding change!

Trump figured this out decades ago when he took over the rebuilding of an iconic landmark, the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park in 1986. New York had tried for years to get it done and simply couldn’t. Trump took it over, got it done under budget and ahead of schedule. Thus, Trump’s rise can, in part, be explained thusly: After eight years of Obama incompetence, Americans from Maine to California are wondering why it can’t be that simple in Washington.

Take the effort to clean-up a landfill site out near the airport in St. Louis, the West Lake landfill. This multi-decade effort has recently come to symbolize everything wrong with the way the federal government approaches the problems posed by potentially toxic sites.

Experts agree it poses no immediate danger to local health or public safety (despite an ongoing underground fire at another landfill several miles away). But because West Lake contains some radioactive material left of from the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, people in the region are rightfully demanding that something be done.

The public has been patient, but their good humor has been worn to the bone and their patience has grown thin. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took far too long to come up with a workable plan to deal with the materials in the site needing to be removed. Decades. Literally. This gave local community activists time to organize and up their demands. Now they don’t just want the site clean-up and a fire break installed but the want the government to buy out the homeowners living near the landfill and pay for them to move.

But as people have been forced to wait (all thanks to the negative inertia of the government), the costs associated with the clean-up have risen. The EPA finally put forward a plan, and the experts agreed it was a good one, only to find a couple of members of Congress were now trying to slip into another piece of legislation. It’s a bill (backed by the Teamsters Union) that would transfer responsibility for the clean-up from the EPA to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and transfer the cost from the owners of the West Lake landfill to the U.S. taxpayers! Worse, the affected homeowners living near the landfill would have to wait even longer for anything to happen even though as the Corps admitted, “There is no guarantee that the ultimate cleanup actions would be different than those which would occur under the current process.”

Like Donald Trump’s experience with the New York City bureaucracy and the Wollman Rink restoration, there has to be a better way to get this project and all the other West Lake landfills out there from conception to completion in a timely and cost effective way. It’s something Congress should consider — perhaps by establishing a select committee to suggest government-wide reforms the next president could implement, when it comes back from its current seven-week recess.

But what is abundantly clear, the electorate is tired of the bureaucracy, tired of the incompetence, tired of government taking decades to accomplish what those in the private sector can accomplish in months or years. When voting to keep or change the direction of the government, competence matters a great deal.

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