Bush’s “Reform” Agenda

Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons

I meant to write about this earlier in the week, but it took a while to get a transcript of Jeb Bush’s speech in Tallahassee laying out a “reform” agenda for that hated city, Washington, DC!

Some of the people who wrote about selected elements of Bush’s speech–especially his proposals on lobbying–didn’t deal with the general air of demogogic dumbassery that suffused it, complete with reendorsement of such ancient chestnuts as the live-item appropriations veto, the balanced budget amendment, a hint of the old Lamar Alexander “dock their pay and send them home” slogan, and a “freeze” in federal employment. This last item is especially dangerous: Bush proposes to cut federal payrolls by 10% by only replacing one of every three employees who retire or resign. As Donald Kettl notes in his recent WaMo article on Scott Walker’s approach to public employee bashing, that’s a prescription for making inefficient government worse:

Today, the biggest problem with federal employees is that there’s not nearly enough of them. As the University of Pennsylvania political scientist and former George W. Bush White House aide John DiIulio has noted in these pages (see “The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Government,” January/February 2015), the size of the federal workforce today remains about what it was in 1960. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has more than doubled, the federal budget has quadrupled in real terms, and the number of pages in the Federal Register has grown fivefold….).

Washington has accommodated this growth largely by handing the job of managing federal programs to outside contractors. But with the same number of federal workers having to oversee ever more money and contractors, cost and quality have suffered. Year after year the GAO and other watchdogs document countless programmatic breakdowns and billions of dollars in cost overruns as a result of what I’ve dubbed “government by proxy.” The disastrous launch of the Obamacare website was a classic example. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services had too few employees with the right skills to manage the contractors who built the system. It’s also a good example of what can turn government programs around: the Obama administration parachuted in a couple dozen of the right people, and in a few months the website was up and running well.

Since Jeb mentions the Obamacare exchange website launch about five times in his speech as the epitome of Big Government incompetence, you’d think he’d be aware that (a) this was a contractor’s mistake, not a bureaucrat’s, and (b) that forcing reductions in levels of federal employment without placing limits on contracting is a move in exactly the wrong direction.

Having said all that, Bush’s lobbying reform proposals are pretty interesting and generally positive, especially coming from the candidate of K Street. Expanding the one-year “revolving door” ban on lobbying by former Members of Congress to six years (supplemented by less precise pledges on limiting the revolving door in the executive branch as well) is certainly a good idea, as is “real-time” disclosure of meetings between lobbyists and Members. Both these provisions, however, are less impressive than they sound unless they are extended to include staff, who handle an awful lot of the lobbyist traffic and are much more heavily represented on K Street than former Members.

But the bigger problem is that Bush is ignoring the mother’s milk of the entire special-interest game: political contributions–as one might expect, since in today’s GOP political money is treated as a sacred First Amendment right. And that’s where the disconnect between what Jeb’s saying and what he’s doing is potentially huge:

Mother Jones‘ Russ Choma quotes campaign finance reform advocate Adam Smith as making the blunt but salient point:

Smith points out that Bush’s fundraising efforts so far—in particular his work with Right to Rise, the super-PAC that supports him and can accept unlimited donations—undermines his credibility when it comes to talking about limiting the influence of special interests in Washington.

“Really rich people are writing really big checks to Jeb’s campaign and the question, in addition to all this lobbying stuff, is what is he going to do make sure those people don’t have extra influence,” Smith says. “What about those people who wrote $10 million checks, if he’s elected, they’re not going to get their calls returned? They won’t need lobbyists—they’ll have his cellphone number.”

At The Hill, CUNY professor Heath Brown has an even better suggestion: why doesn’t Jeb start his lobbying reform with his campaign?

Bush’s promises for a future presidency could have instead been bold action for today. For the next 15 months, Bush only has the authority to decide on the practices of his campaign. He has the power to enact lobbying reform, and stand behind his principles as he travels the country.

For example, he could refuse to hire any former lobbyists to his campaign staff. He could also turn down donations from lobbyists and ask his donors to give directly to the campaign rather than to lobbyist-bundlers. And, he could report on his website every meeting he and his senior staff hold with a lobbyist on campaign and policy strategy.

In a way Bush’s lobbying reform proposals are like his compliance with the laws governing campaign coordination with Super-PACs–they’re potentially undermined by understandings reached before the rules kick in. So yeah, he’ll deserve more admiration if he starts practicing what he’s preaching right now. And it wouldn’t hurt if he’d dispose of all the side dishes of stupid he’s serving along with lobbying reform.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.