Washington's rare moment of reform – for itself

From the IRS abuse to a rise of sexual assaults in the military, Washington is taking time to fix its own problems. A bipartisan effort for reform should apply to fixing the nation's problems.

AP Photo
President Obama waves as he leaves the Ohio State University spring commencement in Columbus May 5. In his address, he said 'the institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust.'

Little noticed in the political “scandals” piling up for President Obama is one bright spot: Washington has finally taken time out from fixing the country’s problems to fixing its own. To most Americans, that’s long overdue.

From security lapses in the Benghazi attack to the rise of sex assaults in the military to the IRS abuse, Democrats and Republicans are singing a similar tune about reforming major parts of government. Partisan politics may still intone an off-key note, but at least the incessant gridlock over competing visions of what government should be doing for America has been temporarily usurped by an emerging consensus on what government should do for itself.

“If we’re being honest,” Mr. Obama said in a May 5 commencement address, elected leaders should admit “the institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust.”

Indeed, public trust in government is at a near-record low of 26 percent, according to a recent Pew poll. In exit polls during last November’s election, more than half of voters said government is doing too much.

Obama’s words, like those of other civic leaders with some humility, reflect the proverbial advice of “physician, heal thyself.” The State Department, for example, has admitted to “systemic failures” and “management deficiencies” leading up to the terrorist attack on American diplomats in Libya last September. A Treasury probe of the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status found “ineffective management oversight.” And Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told the troops: “The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

Admitting past mistakes is halfway to fixing them. And these institutions have already shown some measure of self-correction. But left unsaid is that the size and complexity of government can sometimes lead to lapses in leadership. 

“Part of being president is that there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast,” said Obama adviser David Axelrod about these recent mistakes in federal agencies.

In history, advanced societies have often collapsed after adding solution on top of solution to problems, points out Joseph Tainter of Utah State University in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” Governments find they have to command more resources just to maintain ever-more sophisticated systems, he found, based on studies of civilizations from the Roman Empire to the Mayan civilization.

In today’s world, mature democracies are in trouble over their governance abilities, warns the think tank Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In a report, it states: “Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices....”

Mending government’s mistakes requires a humility to recognize them, a new appreciation for simplicity and innovation, and an occasional timeout from the normal business of social reform. Such moments also offer a rare opportunity for bipartisan momentum. Perhaps that spirit can last when Washington resumes debates on matters like immigration and background checks on gun purchases.

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