“Doing What Works”.
February 22, 2010, 4:00am

The Progress Report.

At his inauguration, President Obama offered a simple response to the ideologues who would drown government in a bathtub. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” he said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.” Government often works exceptionally well, and such successes should be continued or expanded. Nevertheless, it is equally important that inefficient, wasteful, or failed programs be reformed or eliminated — such vigilance is the price of maintaining taxpayer trust. Although polls overwhelmingly favor greater government involvement in energy, health care, the economy, and education, this desire is checked by suspicion that government can work well. In one survey, 61 percent agreed that “government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient.” Simply put, progressives must prove these cynics wrong — and programs such as the Center for American Progress’ new Doing What Works project must push government to do so — or we will continue to face roadblocks to implementing long-needed reforms

GOVERNMENT CAN WORK: The Clinton administration achieved significant gains in government performance. FEMA, for example, earned widespread praise for its management of disaster response. And the veterans health system was transformed into the single best health provider in the country, significantly outperforming the private sector. But performance eroded after eight years of the Bush administration’s misguided policies, rampant cronyism, and special interest influence. Inexcusable personnel decisions and general lack of concern at the highest levels of government for FEMA’s core mission led to an agency that was completely unprepared for Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, the Bush administration was hardly concerned with ensuring that its prescription drug plan got the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck. According to one study, drugs purchased by seniors under Medicare Part D can cost 30 percent more than the exact same drugs purchased under Medicaid. Simply put, America cannot afford a government that does not maximize value and results for the American people, because government is too important. Social Security reduced poverty among American seniors by 75 percent; traditional Medicare provides essential care while controlling costs far better than the private sector, and Americans can trust their food supply because of the FDA. Every dollar wasted is a dollar that can’t advance these and other critical needs, and it is a dollar that plunges us deeper into debt.

GRADING GOVERNMENT: Nevertheless, not every program is a model of efficiency. One important step towards building a more efficient government is to ensure that the federal government and its agencies set challenging, outcome-driven goals and then evaluate programs according to whether they advance these goals. Sadly, the federal government’s existing performance evaluation tools are not up to this task. Ratings under the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) often had little to do with a program’s performance. In the same year as FEMA’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, PART rated that agency’s disaster response program as “adequate.” Pre-Bush tools devolved into a bureaucratic paperwork-producing exercise, largely ignored by executive branch decision-makers and Congress because they set too many low-priority and low-risk goals that failed to test government in a meaningful way. One area needing particular attention is tax expenditures. Because Congress appropriates federal discretionary funds every year, spending programs are annually re-evaluated to determine whether they deserve funding. Yet the government gives over $1.2 trillion annually in tax breaks — twice as much as the entire non-military discretionary budget — to various industries and individuals, and these tax expenditures are not subject to regular review. Billions of dollars worth of annual tax breaks to oil companies deserve at least as much scrutiny as a multimillion dollar program intended to educate low-income children, yet the budgeting process focuses far more on the latter.

THE BUSINESS OF GOVERNMENT: Government needs to set good policy, but it also needs to order paper and hire staff, and the Bush government was particularly inattentive to these operational needs. Between 2000 and 2005, the amount of no-bid and single-bid contracts paid by the federal government grew from $67 billion to $145 billion, a 115 percent increase. The overall annual cost of contracting also skyrocketed under Bush, growing 86 percent to $377 billion during the same five-year period. Obama is reversing this trend. Since taking office, the Obama Administration identified $19 billion in savings from contracting reforms, and it plans to cut $40 billion annually by 2011. Obama’s transparency reforms also help keep spending under control. A federal website known as the IT Dashboard, for example, tracks every single dollar the government spends on information technology, empowering the Veterans Administration to identify $200 million in overdue or over budget projects. All of these projects were temporarily halted; many will be killed entirely. Admittedly, these reforms have not transformed government into a model of efficiency — the federal hiring process, for example, remains a mess — but they do prove that government can provide real value to the taxpayer, and they demonstrate that progressive government can deliver such efficiency.

CIVIL RIGHTS — REPORT FINDS SPEEDY INTEGRATION OF OPENLY GAY SERVICEMEMBERS IN ‘NOT DISRUPTIVE’: According to a report released by the Palm Center, a research group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the speedy integration of openly-gay servicemembers into foreign militaries is “not disruptive.” This conclusion refutes the arguments of some Pentagon leaders, who argue that implementing a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) might take a year or more. Despite some conservative arguments that repealing DADT would hurt military recruitment, the report concluded that a speedy policy change “did not undermine morale, cause large resignations or mass ‘comings out.'” The report also found that “‘there were no instances of increased harassment’ as a result of lifting bans in any of the countries studied.” On NBC’s Meet The Press this weekend, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, refused go give his personal opinion on DADT, but said that he’s “not sure” that most servicemembers would care about fighting alongside openly gay men and women, and that he has personally done so without any problems. This week, top military brass are scheduled to speak at hearings on Capitol Hill. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said this weekend that he will be leading the Senate’s push to repeal DADT. Lieberman disputed “the claim that allowing gay people to serve openly would cause havoc within the ranks,” adding that such an argument “belittles the maturity of our soldiers.”

As part of the White House’s comprehensive plan to reform health care that will be unveiled today, President Obama will propose giving the federal government the power to review and deny excessive or discriminatory health insurance premium increases. The plan, which is not part of the House or Senate bills, is in response to Anthem Blue Cross rate hikes in California.
A report released Friday evening by the Office of Professional Responsibility finds that former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo concluded that “the president’s war-making authority was so broad that he had the constitutional power to order a village to be ‘massacred.'” Yoo is the author of the infamous August 2002 Justice Department memo that argued the president had broad authority in ordering torture.
During an interview with Fox News last week, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee “blasted the Conservative Political Action Conference…as outdated, nearly corrupt and unrepresentative of the conservative movement.” “CPAC has becom[e] increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years, one of the reasons I didn’t go this year,” Huckabee told a Fox host.
More than two dozen unions and liberal groups, including the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, have dismissed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) new $15 billion jobs bill as “puny.” “If this $15 billion was the only thing [that passed], that would be like having an amputated arm and sticking a band aid on the end of it,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

After President Obama proposed last year that “the federal government assume direct control of all student loans, Sallie Mae, the large student lender, moved quickly to step up its lobbying game.” The company hired high-powered lobbyists like Jamie Gorelick and the Podesta Group, which set up what the Obama administration calls a “war room” to kill the White House plan.

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll has found that “Americans overwhelmingly believe that the government is broken.” Eighty-six percent of people questioned said that the system of government is broken. On the bright side, “of the 86 percent, 81 percent say that the government can be fixed.”
Five former Treasury secretaries endorsed the “Volker rule” Sunday, urging Congress to “bar banks that receive federal support from engaging in speculative activity unrelated to basic bank services.” The bipartisan group wrote in a letter that these banks should “be free to fail without explicit or implicit taxpayer support.”