Three lessons to make government work better now and in the future
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Three lessons to make government work better now and in the future

May 18, 2021

There are many ways to improve government, some complex and difficult, and some very basic. As we navigate today’s heightened social and political tensions and continue to strive for a more effective government, three foundational lessons for political and career leaders alike can help us create a better future. The people of this country, and leaders in the executive branch and Congress can all work together to improve government by following age-old adages and remembering basic civics lessons.

The Golden Rule. Hopefully, most of us have learned, or at least heard of, the golden rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated. It is the foundation for relationships that can build trust and good will. It also allows for healthy disagreements to occur without an abdication in civility. Many of our nation’s more recent disputes have been anything but civil, manifested in disturbing ways that go beyond name-calling to fears for physical safety and taking pleasure in the failure of an opponent. Kindness—even in politics—can help remedy these troubling behaviors and attitudes.

Passing a Bill and a Budget. When Congress does not pass legislation due to partisan battles, policy stalemates or competing priorities, it has real consequences for federal agencies and the public they serve. In the past four decades, Congress has passed annual spending bills on schedule just a handful of times and the government has at least partially shut down on nearly two dozen occasions. Government shutdowns waste millions of taxpayer dollars as agencies must furlough employees, interrupt contracts and halt services, only to resume hours, days or weeks later. The introduction of Stopgap continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown can lead to inefficiencies as well, as agencies are constrained from doing anything new, like revamping existing services.

Congress also spends money on agencies or programs that are operating under old or expired statutes, often because bipartisan agreement to update them is elusive. The Congressional Budget Office recently identified $432 billion in funding that Congress directed toward programs and functions that are no longer authorized.

In the meantime, presidents do not always wait for Congress to act and have other means at their disposal. Current and past presidents have used administrative actions like executive orders to implement policy and achieve campaign promises. The current president has issued more executive orders than the last three combined at similar points in their presidencies. However, unlike laws, an executive order can be undone with a stroke of the next president’s pen. To have real staying power, there is no substitute for bipartisan legislation that has worked its way through Congress to the president’s desk. Our executive and legislative branch leaders must work together to pass laws and provide resources to keep government running smoothly. Though difficult, the budget debates can also help get us on a more sustainable financial path.

Advice and Consent. A growing number of key government positions are either vacant or led by acting officials. One reason is that presidents must appoint too many political appointees—more than 4,000, around 1,200 of which require Senate confirmation.

Article II of the Constitution establishes the Senate’s advice and consent role with regards to presidential appointments. This is a fundamental component of the checks and balances system created by our founders. The executive and legislative branches share responsibility for filling critical Senate-confirmed appointments, and must work together to ensure that competent and well-qualified individuals serve in key political positions. When confirmations get delayed and presidents rely too heavily on acting officials, the public is put at a disadvantage and government becomes less effective, transparent and accountable.  

We must appropriately adhere to the Constitution’s advice and consent provisions to ensure the best talent serves in key policy positions and helps government work better.

These lessons—some of which we learned long ago—can help us solve today’s challenges. We should dig deep to recall these lessons, share them with one another, and, perhaps most importantly, provide them to future generations so that they can address the issues we continue to face.