Slow government in a swift world
Washington — Sometimes I ask myself whether the United States is governable. Governable, that is without changes. Here is an item, for example, from the Wall Street Journal announcing that the fourth Congress in succession has given up trying to redraft the US Criminal Code. The effort began with a presidential commission in 1966 and it has been pending in Congress since 1973. But Congress can't agree. Out it goes.
I am not saying that the code is a good or bad thing, though most people agree that the present Code needs modernizing. It is a very technical thing. But Congress hasn't been able to act. It is so in other matters. The polls indicate that 80 percent or more of the public wants stronger control of handguns; Congress doesn't move. Polls indicat a similar big majority for stricter border control against illegal alien immigration (estimated at around a million a year). Congress doesn't move. I am not arguing for the proposals; I am merely wondering about the legislative system.
Or take another case: there isn't a member of Congress who doesn't want inflation halted by some means or another. So do the outgoing President and the income President. Latest figures indicate a current rate of inflation of around 12 percent. Here the public is as divided about what to do as the government itself. Affable Ronald Reagan has an arresting proposal to cut taxes 10 percent a year for three years, increase defense expenditures, cut "waste and corruption", and so stimulate the economy that he will balance the budget. Maybe it will worl. (In the privacy of this parenthesis may I express doubts.) But is government capable of dealing with the matter?
An important study of the presidency by a prestigious 26-member panel of the National Academy of Public Administrtion reports that "a clear danger is bearing down on us." This danger is emphasized in seven words: "It is our capacity to govern ourselves." When a group like this is uncertain it transcends the testy question I put at the head of the column. The government is divided by the unique separation of powers, notes the report, and there are really questions of coherence: "If we cannot so manage our public affairs as to bring unity out of diversity," the panel reports, "we will be able to meet no other challenge in the decades to come."
The paperbound report "A Presidency for the 1980s" (National Academy of Public Administration, Washington) is co-chaired by Don K. Price, Harvard emeritus professor, and Rocco C. Siciliano, a one-time Eisenhower assistant and Los Angeles business executive, with all sorts of distinguished people on it, from the superintendent of West Point to the head of the communications workers trade union. In examining our government the place to begin, they say, is the White House.
Why is the problem more intense now? We have done pretty well, haven't we, in the past 200 years? To the second question the panel in effect, says "Yes -- but." To the first it notes that the world is changing swiftly: "Social, economic, and political upheavals have led to a global fragmentation of power." In short, it warns, this is too perilous a world for a government system that is casual about deadlock, stalemate, and paralysis.
Fill the picture in for yourself, floomy or rosy colors. But note in passing , seven comparatively recent developments listed by the panel that have reflected, or helped produce what the writers call the "fragmentation of power on the domestic scene." I will just list them, without comment: progressive weakening of political parties; the drawn-out nominating and campaign procedures (that are "often irrelevant to the realities of governing"); fragmentation of congressional leadership; mounting costs and delays in the delivery of public services as the complexities of federalism increase; increased judicial involvement as litigation increases on matters of public policy; a "radical increase" in special pressure groups; and finally "a declining faith of Americans in the fairness, integrity, and competency of their special institutions, particularly the institutions of government."
Can America govern itself? How silly! We look for an inspiring affirmative at the end but the panel doesn't go in for purple passages. "What unites us is greater than what divides us," mit affirms, but after making this statement it goes on with a rather chilling "if": "If our political institutions operate so as to reflect that fact, then both our individual liberties and our collective strength will prosper." Yes . . . . If.