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See Inside January 2010

Looking for Change in the Beltway: The Need for Open Process

The Obama administration must reform how policies are made, not just the policies themselves



Matt Collins

When President Barack Obama promised change, he put two kinds on the agenda. The first was substantive change: reforms to key sectors of the economy, such as health care, climate change, financial markets and arms procurement.

The second was process change: improvements to how public policies are shaped and how decisions over public funding are made. Against the odds, the Obama administration is making some progress on the first—but at the sacrifice of the second.

The important health care legislation inching its way through Congress as this column goes to press will help expand the number of Americans covered by health care insurance and will limit some of the abuses by the private insurance industry in denying coverage and reimbursements to the public. Similarly, climate change legislation is also moving forward, with the chance that a permit system will begin to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases and start the lengthy shift of the U.S. economy to lower-emissions technologies.

Yet how this modest progress is being achieved is alarming. The Obama administration has not put forward one coherent plan as a detailed policy proposal. Every major piece of public policy has been turned over to the backrooms of Congress, emerging through the lobby-infested bargaining process among vested and regional interests. There was no overarching plan for the economic stimulus; no clear plan for health care reform; no defined strategy for climate change control; and so forth. If there were plans behind the scenes, they were never presented to the public as such.

This approach, it is often said, reflects the “learning” from the failures of the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform health care and control climate change. This time, the logic goes, the administration will leave no easy targets in the form of detailed policy proposals that can be shot down. It will let the negotiations among interest groups take place first and deftly guide a compromise piece of legislation to adoption. This is the logic of politics as the art of the possible.

By refusing to put forward clear plans, the administration is creating gaping and unnecessary weaknesses in public policy. First, and most important, the bad parts of legislation are not shot down. For example, Congress has never even considered the advantages of a straightforward carbon tax over the messier cap-and-trade system because there has been little occasion for serious policy planning.

Second, backroom negotiations are of course an invitation to vast, shady transfers of wealth. Carbon permits worth hundreds of billions of dollars were allocated to vested interests in private dealings without any public awareness, debate or participation. Similar deals in health care, financial reform and the stimulus bill have left the public struggling to understand the real winners and losers from various legislative actions.

Moreover, the administration has repeatedly lost the opportunity to convey important information to the American people. Only one third of the U.S. public believes that man-made climate change is even real. The public has absolutely no idea about the modest costs and high benefits of bringing emissions under control. It suffers similarly hopeless confusion about health care, the stimulus package, financial reform and other policy initiatives.

The complex, crucial issues we face require both expert inputs and public understanding. On each major issue of public policy, the administration should first put forward a white paper explaining why it is calling for a policy initiative, what it will cost, what benefits it will bring and how it will work. Legislative proposals should be shaped around these strategy documents. Independent expert groups should be invited to draft responses.

Most important, lobbying needs to be scorned rather than promoted. If given a chance, the public would back the Obama administration in facing down these narrow interests, the very interests that have contributed so much to our financial meltdowns, overpriced health care, clunker automobiles and energy insecurity. Scientists, engineers and public policy specialists can help craft real solutions, and an enlightened and trusted public would help put those solutions into place above the opposition of narrow interests.

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