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No dollars, common sense: eighteen cost-free steps to a better America.

Before the polls had closed in Juneau, before the gospel choir had cleared its collective throat in little Rock, before most of the nation knew we even had a new president, skepticism began gently to swirl through the Washington establishment. It's swell that Bill Clinton has a five-point plan for everything, sniped the pundits, but the numbers just don't add up. There's simply no way to get this country moving again --at least not in the right direction for the long term--without ballooning the deficit so much that Keynes himself would get the willies.

No way? Well, if asked--okay, even if not--we at the The Washington Monthly are perfectly willing to share our revolutionary program to fix America, a program that, believe it or not, won't cost a cent. Some of our ideas will even raise revenues. Many of these ideas will be familiar to veteran readers--who wouldn't be veteran readers if they hadn't decided to forgive our willingness to repeat ourselves for a good cause. And even they should scan what follows because there's enough here that is new to keep them awake.

As for the inevitable charge that our plan is just a pipe dream on paper, consider this: Since the last version of what was then called "America: A Repair Guide" appeared, two causes long advocated by the Monthly were adopted by Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign. One is to make higher education possible for all qualified students, without regard to their ability to pay, by having the government guarantee long-term loans to them that would be collectible through the IRS. The only way we differ from the president-elect on this issue is on his proposal to forgive the loan in return for national service. We believe there is an obligation to national service that should not be dependent on a potential reward and that one of the president's highest obligations is to challenge Americans to volunteer without regard to gain. We also doubt that the government could afford to both forgive the loan and finance service. When I worked for the Peace Corps it took $9,000 a year to maintain a single volunteer in the field--and that was in inexpensive third-world countries 30 years ago.

The other Monthly cause adopted by Clinton is a capital-gains tax break for new investment. We also urge him to consider a similar break for long-term investment that we, Warren Buffett, and Paul Tsongas, among others, have supported. It could be financed by raising the capital-gains tax paid on short-term profits. Stupid is the only word for the current capital-gains break, which gives the same treatment to in-and-out trading of existing issues that it does to what is really needed: long-term investment in new plants.

The embrace of these two steps is a promising start for the Clinton administration. But if the new president really wants to quell the skepticism and get this country jumpstarted without breaking the bank, we've got 18 more that we're perfectly happy to lend him....

Get people to do work that counts: Discourage them from becoming laywers

1. Adopt loser pays rules in court.

Aside from "Gimme your wallet and your watch," the scariest line one hears from a young person these days is, "I don't know what I want to do, so I'm going to law school." Probably the most dramatic waste of bright graduates in the eighties took place on Wall Street, but overall since World War 11, the most enduring and damaging trap has been the law school bait-and-switch: Students go in with a vague hope of finding challenging, exciting, useful careers and come out settling for lucrative ones. The United States now has 20 times more lawyers than Japan, and Washington, D.C. boasts 1 lawyer for every 10 residents. The best way to shrink the supply of lawyers is by drying up the demand. Diverting these able young people from the law would free them to use their talents in work they believe in and enjoy--from teaching ghetto children to working for the Environmental Protection Agency to starting a business that makes high-quality products.

A major factor in the overlawyering of America is the frivolous lawsuit, filed in the hope of extorting a payoff--referred to as a settlement in the law's genteel parlance--from a defendant worried about the legal costs of lengthy proceedings, even though he knows he is in the right and would ultimately win. Conversely, rich defendants often use the threat of protracted proceedings to discourage legitimate claims. If the loser had to pay the legal fees of the winning party, both just claimants and just defendants would be encouraged, but unjust claims and unjust defenses would be discouraged. Thus, when John Q. Average had a strong case against Ajax Corporation, Ajax would not be tempted to run Average's legal bills into the stratosphere by protracting the proceedings because Ajax would know it will have to pay the plaintiff's fee when it loses the case. Similarly, extortion suits would be quashed because plaintiffs with lousy cases would be penalized with the opposition's costs--as they are now not--for bringing groundless cases to court. This would mean less work for lawyers and fewer of them. That has proven to be the case in England, which has "loser pays" rules--and only one third the number of lawyers per capita that we do.

I would like to see loser pays applied to small claims. When I was practicing law, the most common form of injustice I encountered was when a potential client came to me with a story that showed he had clearly been cheated on a purchase, say, a $500 refrigerator. I could not sue because even if we recovered the full amount, the fee I could conscientiously charge could not possibly cover my time. But if a store knew it would have to pay a plaintiff's lawyer's fees as well as the amount of a settlement or verdict, it would have a compelling reason to quickly give just complainants satisfaction--i.e., a new refrigerator or a refund. Justice would be done without anybody having to go to court. As importantly, the sadly demoralizing words "You have an excellent case, but there isn't enough money involved to go to court," would not have to be uttered and we'd be closer to a society in which men and women feel confident that justice will be served. Ultimately, this is what makes the right loser pays system so attractive.

The Economist argued in a recent article that loser pays would discourage poor plaintiffs from bringing good but imperfect suits. There is an easy answer to this: Have loser pays apply only if the suit or the defense is so clearly lacking in merit that it results in a summary judgment or a directed verdict, either of which happens only when the suit or defense is so lacking in merit that reasonable jurors could not find otherwise. This modification of loser pays would still attain its essential goal by encouraging the litigant who is clearly in the right--protecting The Economist's little guy with the good but imperfect case--while discouraging both the frivolous suit and the frivolous defense. And judges would have good reason to study the merits of a case closely because they, of course, would face the prospect of being reversed by an appeals court.

The Bush administration, with the charge led by none other than Dan Quayle, talked at least some sense about loser pays earlier this year. Now it's up to Bill Clinton to wake up. Unfortunately, he hasn't shown the slightest sign of understanding the problem, and based on his experience in Arkansas politics, he probably has an unhealthy fear of trial lawyers.

2. Switch to no-fault in malpractice cases and auto wrecks.

Provided that the medical review boards grow teeth so that patients can feel confident that drunks and incompetents won't be slicing them open [see "The Case for Smart Regulation," below], a no-fault system would help ease a legitimate pressure on doctors to jack up their fees: ever-rising malpractice insurance premiums. The trade-off for consumers would be that they would no longer be compensated for "pain and suffering"; on the other hand, they would be compensated for their lost earnings and the costs of their care immediately, rather than after a long and ugly legal battle, and, in general, they would pay less for medical services. Similarly, no-fault auto insurance would eliminate not just pain and suffering compensation but also the fraud that accompanies many of these suits, and it would reduce the cost of auto insurance for everyone. If we instituted no-fault, who would be the biggest losers? The lawyers--which is yet another reason the rest of us would gain. [On medical malpractice, see "Tilting at Windmills," May 1991. On auto insurance, see "Whose No-fault Is It, Anyway?" Peter Spiro and Daniel Mirvish, October 1989.]

How to save democracy

One in four Americans goes without basic medical care; on the other hand, if you can afford it, you can get everything from fresh kidneys to a new face. The poorer three out of five American families pay more in taxes than they did in 1980; on the other hand, the richer two pay less. Add it all up, and what have you got? A two-tier education system, a two-tier health care system, a two-tier tax code. Inequality in America isn't solely the result of these three things. But why use all three of them to make the problem worse, not better?

3. Evaluate performance, not credentials.

"Value of Money is Questioned in National Debate Over Improving Schools," ran the headline of a recent New York Times story. For years, reformers have held the incorrect assumption that more money is the only answer to saving our public schools. That assumption is starting to crumble as people realize that money meant to educate kids is being wasted on salary increases for teachers who can't teach and for administrators who are either unnecessary or incompetent or both. One way to deal with this problem is to get rid of the inept ones and give raises solely on the basis of merit. Another is to change the way teachers are certified.

Suppose you earn a master's degree in English from Emory University and, having tutored and served as a graduate teaching assistant, decide you want to start teaching in Georgia's public schools. Not so fast. So you know The Great Gatsby inside and out. So you can hold a class rapt for hours at a time. So what? Before you can even be considered for a teaching job, Georgia insists you take courses like "Behavior Modification" and "Reading Techniques."

Given the parlous state of public education, it's criminal to erect obstacles to new teachers that at worst turn away the talented and ambitious and at best work to smother their creativity. A smarter system would certify teachers based on their knowledge of their subject and their ability to get up before a class of kids and teach. States like New Jersey, bucking union opposition, started experimenting with this type of system a few years back, and the results thus far have been encouraging. Unfortunately, too few other states have followed their lead. One that has is Arkansas. Bill Clinton wrote us a letter in 1988 pointing with pride to Arkansas' alternative certification program. And he had the courage to support other education reforms, so unless he caves in to his new friends at the NEA, the chances seem relatively good that he will provide the national leadership that has been missing from the school reform movement.

4. Control the doctors.

Let's say your house is on fire. You call the fire department. Imagine a conversation that goes something like this:

You: Help! My house is on fire!

Receptionist: Hold, please.

[Muzak]

Receptionist: Can I help you?

You: Yes, dammit, my house is on fire! Send

help!

Receptionist: Fine. Would Tuesday at 3 o'clock

fit your schedule? The charge will be approximately

$10,000 per room, depending on how

many are inflamed.

Never happen, right? Of course not--we wouldn't let it. But ask yourself: Why is it that the health care market has produced such terrible distortions--that the growing number of doctors leads to fees that outstrip inflation year after year? That where there is the greatest need for good health care--in Appalachia, for example--there is so little supply? Because, out of all the life-protecting professionals, only doctors are permitted to hold their power over consumers' heads. It's time to switch that relationship around. After all, we don't let all soldiers and sailors serve in San Francisco--or all policemen patrol just Park Avenue.

Another approach to controlling medical costs would be to eliminate what we suspect is the main motivating force behind physicians' greed--the unnecessary ordeals that accompany their training. "You know, I didn't get into this for the money," says one exhausted intern after 36 hours spent at a D.C. hospital. "But after the crap they put me through, I feel like I deserve it." Making all experienced doctors work at hospitals just two or three nights each year would put an end to the brutalizing ritual that's required when only interns and residents carry the whole nighttime load. It's insane for our medical system to take idealistic young people--you know them, the ones who play with plastic stethoscopes when they're six--and fill them with self-pity by grinding them down with unnecessary labor, which is then paid for by their patients for the rest of those doctors' lives. [See "A Platform for the Eighties," Charles Peters, February 1979.] If you think these ideas too extreme, we offer a compromise: socialized medicine.

5. Adopt a health care system that works for everyone.

We have the most advanced medical facilities in the world; our doctors are the best-trained anywhere; our medical procedures are state-of-the-art. But what good is all this when there are 37 million Americans without health insurance and when millions more who are served by Medicaid are subject to second-rate treatment--or none at all.

No question, our system's broke. For a fix our best hope is to combine the best features of the Canadian system--one where the government provides health care for all citizens--with some American ingenuity. Under a Canadian-style plan, not only would all Americans be assured of receiving care, but they could choose their own doctors. The fatal flaw of Britain's socialized medical system is avoided. And the Canadian system is cheaper. It does a better job than we do of holding down drug costs (prescription drugs cost 32 percent less than they do here) and reducing the number of unnecessary but expensive tests. They also are better at controlling the tendency of surgeons to slice where surgery is not needed. The result is a system that costs much less than ours-9 percent of GDP versus 14 percent. And it does so without impoverishing physicians. Canadian doctors earn an average of $100,000 a year. The catch is that you have to wait in line for some procedures unless your life is threatened. If we want to avoid the wait and have all the benefits of the best in the Canadian system, all we have to do is apply the savings we will make on administrative costs to remedying the deficiencies of the Canadian system. Is that possible? Administrative costs here gobble 24 cents of every dollar spent on health care. In Canada, the figure is one cent. So the savings will be about $80 billion, which should more than cover the cost of abolishing long waits in line. [See "Socialized Medicine Now--Without the Wait," Nancy Watzman, October 1991.]

6. Switch to a sane Social Security system.

Because of increases in the Social Security tax, poor workers saw their tax burdens rise by as much as 28 percent over the course of the eighties. Meanwhile, at the other end of the system, we continue to fund the retirements of Rockefellers well in excess of the amounts they contributed while they were working. But the unfairness of this system isn't a function of benefits just for the rich. Because Social Security benefits are largely insulated from taxation, income taxes paid by an upper-middle-class elderly family amount to less than half those paid by a working family with the same income. To make this system fairer, we should provide generous tax breaks to the working poor and the lower middle class and off-set the loss to the Treasury by taxing, at regular rates, all Social Security income of the affluent instead of the half of that income that is subject to taxation now. We really prefer a means test that would strip benefits from the Rockefellers, but such a reform seems unlikely, while full taxation is clearly within the realm of the possible, since Bill Clinton seems sympathetic to the idea. [See "The W-2 Step," James Bennet, June 1991.]

7. Create jobs by reforming the retirement and health care benefit systems.

An even better reform would be to remove the costs of health care and social security from the employer-employee relationship. Economists blame a wide array of economic and social factors for the slow rate of job creation, but perhaps no reason is as significant as--and less recognized than--the burden the American system places on workers and those who employ them in paying for Social Security and health care benefits. The combined employer-employee social security tax rate rose from 4 percent in 1955 to 15.3 percent in 1990, and today the average fringe benefit package comprises nearly 30 percent of the average salary package. The ill effect is that it presses employers to avoid hiring so that they can avoid paying for more benefits. For the employer, it makes more sense simply to horsewhip the workers he's got. So for Susie, who's looking for a part-time job as a receptionist, the doors are shut, and for Sam, who's got the job now, it means indecent hours--not to mention the loss of a huge chunk of his weekly pay going to subsidize an overworked retirement benefits system.

The solution lies in removing responsibility for health insurance and retirement security from the workplace altogether. For starters, the government should provide nationalized health care, funded by the income tax. One advantage, of course, is that this would provide more Americans with health care, but it also means that paying for the care would no longer be a burden on the employer-employee relationship. For the business owner, the cost of hiring part-time Susie would thus be reduced as he wouldn't be burdened with paying the additional benefits. And at the same time, it means that Sam, with Susie filling in, can work a more decent schedule. The same holds true for retirement benefits. With the cost taken off the back of the employer-employee relationship, employers would be encouraged to hire more workers instead of loading overtime on those they have. They would also be encouraged to give part-time employment to young parents who want to devote part of their days to caring for their children.

8. Tax the churches.

No one knows how much wealth our churches have accumulated, though conservative estimates place it at $700 billion. As of 1987, for example, the Catholic Church was New York City's largest landowner. Numbers on church wealth are elusive because religious organizations are the only nonprofits in the country that do not have to report financial information to the Internal Revenue Service. Considering the earthly indulgences the religious tax exemption has supported in the past few years--everything from payoffs for prostitutes to air-conditioned doghouses--closing that loophole would be a good first step. Churches should then have to pay taxes on all property used primarily for religious, as opposed to charitable, purposes. Sound crazy? Think about it: The Constitution's establishment clause forbids government to single out one religion (or religion generally) for help or harm. Singling churches out for an exemption violates that rule; taxing them just like other property does not. [See "Pennies from Heaven," Elizabeth Lesly, April 1991.]

9. Raise the estate tax.

Right now, the federal government collects only about 5 percent of the $200 billion Americans bequeath each year. It does not make much sense to tax someone far less on what he has been given than on what he earns by the sweat of his brow. The reason the tax is so small is that the exemption on inheritance is so large: Today, individuals can bequeath $600,000 tax-free, and couples $1.2 million. That's why only 3 percent of estates are now subject to taxation. Cutting the exemption in half, to 300,000, would extend that tax to the wealthiest 10 percent.

We just don't allow enormous estates to go untaxed, however. The way the entitlements system works, the average receptionist can wind up subsidizing the estate of a wealthy retired lawyer. Rather than spend his family wealth to pay for his health care, that elderly lawyer can rely on Medicare, funded by the receptionist's taxes, to foot his bills. It is simply grotesque for the state to provide an incentive for families not to take care of their own. Here's how to put an end to this anti-family con: When the lawyer dies, in addition to other taxes due, the government should take from his estate the amount of the benefits he received in excess of what he contributed, plus interest.

10. Close the angel-of-death loophole.

This loophole protects inherited capital gains from taxation. When Muffy Chastleton Wentworth inherits stock in Company X that her father Tripp has held for 30 years and then turns around to sell it, she pays taxes on the capital gain only since the day she inherited. These two steps--eliminating the loophole and lowering the estate tax exemption--would raise $80 billion by the year 2000 and make the economy more efficient to boot. [On both the estate tax and the angel-of-death loophole, see "The Secret Solution to the Deficit," Paul Glastris, January/February 1991.]

The case for smart regulation

Connservatives are afraid that regulation will cripple legitimate business. Liberals should share that fear instead of automatically advocating more government rules as the answer to every problem. But conservatives do need reminding that we all want clean air and water, safe cars and planes, prices that are determined by fair competition instead of monopoly power, and food and drugs that do not endanger our health. All that means that we must have government regulation and that, to protect us, it will have to be tough and incorruptible--and to protect the legitimate interests of business, it will have to be smart as well. Here are some regulatory proposals that we do not feel have received enough attention and that meet our no-cost test.

11. Mandate that all fleet vehicles run on natural gas or electricity.

"We are doing everything we can to guarantee ... that there will be an adequate supply of hydrocarbons," announced George Bush in the early days of preparations for the Gulf war. His guarantee, it turned out, carried a pretty high premium. And despite the war, Americans simply stayed in the same rut, swallowing 18 million barrels of oil each day, burning some 12 million of those in vehicles. You might not hear much about alternative fuels from the Bush administration, but they do exist. Electricity, for example, costs about half as much as gasoline and contributes less to smog. Likewise, natural gas, which is in plentiful supply in the United States, is cheaper and contributes 80 percent less than oil to smog.

The most efficient way to switch to alternative fuels is to begin with vehicles that travel local routes and are refueled at a central location--fleet vehicles like dump trucks, delivery vans, taxicabs, rental cars, and city and school buses. The deadline for conversion should be flexible, giving more time to those fleets that take more than five years to turn over (in D.C., for example, the buses take 10). Switching these vehicles to natural gas or electricity would not only drastically reduce smog in our big cities (the reason Los Angeles has already started converting its municipal fleets) but it would cut American oil consumption by 10 percent--about as much as we import from the Persian Gulf. [See "Kicking the Oil Habit," Peter Gray, March 1991.]

12. Make roads and highways safer and stronger.

When you can't tell the difference between the speed bumps and the rest of the highway, you know you have a problem, and that just about captures the sorry state of America's roads and highways. Despite an annual outlay of nearly $80 billion, the federal government now classifies more than one half of America's roads as deteriorated--that is anything from "poor" to "unfit for high speed travel." And that means a lot more than a bumpy ride--namely $120 billion annually in federal and local repair costs, and countless lives and injuries. More than anything else, an ill-conceived roads policy virtually drives roads to ruin. The way the bidding rules are written, the best bidder never wins, just the cheapest. At the same time, federal laws specifically forbid the states from forcing contractors to guarantee their work. The result is that delays and road repair expenditures often double the total expense of the road.

Three simple steps, all of which are now in place in many European countries, can reverse the trend. First, states should require builders to guarantee their roads. Second, and in return for the guarantees, local governments should make their design requirements flexible, freeing the contractor to use the best materials and the best design. Finally, low bid requirements should be ditched and replaced with long-term design cost-benefit analysis. Would it pay off? According to one recent federally supported study, simply encouraging widespread use of chemical binders in asphalt --what the Europeans have been doing for years--could save $270 million.

One practical suggestion about highway spending and other economic recovery motivated infrastructure rebuilding: It is crucial that we dedicate the money to projects that are not still on the drawing board but that are ready for the digging to begin and the concrete to start pouring. The average bureaucrat will think he has spent money when he has signed a contract obligating the funds. But often the truth is that the money won't be spent for two or three years. [See "Why American Roads All Go to Pot," Betsy Dance, November, 1991.]

13. Put an end to the self-regulation of professions.

Talk about contradictions in terms. Too often, professions wind up being regulated in their own interest, rather than in the consumers'. In Virginia, an alcoholic surgeon operated drunk for years, even though his peers and a representative of the local medical board knew about his problem. Perhaps the scariest part is that the behavior of his colleagues, and even of the review board representative, was perfectly understandable. It was the natural result of a regulatory system in which judges have more incentive to be sympathetic to the accused than to the victim--incentives like friendship and shared self-interest. This is a recurring problem with police review boards, a problem that could be eliminated by replacing those police judges and investigators with civilians. Besides medicine, the law is another profession in which self-regulation has become a painful joke. For these two fields, there is a nicely symmetrical solution: Put lawyers on doctors' boards and doctors on lawyers'. Given the long history of mutual vigorous criticism between these two groups of professionals, they certainly know each other's shortcomings inside and out. Why not make a virtue of this tension? [See "Tilting at Windmills," May 1991.]

At least in the business world, CEOs make a pretense of fair play by hiring outside auditors to scrutinize the books. But appearance is about as close to fairness as it gets. The way the American accounting system works, companies pick their own auditors--a system as ludicrous as having an author pick his own reviewer. The collapse of the S&Ls is the strongest evidence for the need to reform this incestuous system. To take one celebrated instance: The Big Eight accounting firm of Arthur Young gave Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings & Loan an "unqualified" audit--the accounting industry's big thumbs-up--at the same time federal regulators, a group not known for delivering early or strong warnings, concluded that Lincoln was a "ticking time bomb."

Auditors have an awfully big incentive to play nice with the auditees: The corporations are their bosses, and if they deliver a skeptical report about, say, an exaggerated earnings statement, they might lose the account. On the other hand, the Arthur Young executive who oversaw the Lincoln account got paid off by being hired away by Lincoln's parent company for just under $1 million per year.

Here's a cheap way to split up this cozy relationship: Rather than let corporations pick their own auditors, have an independent authority like the Securities and Exchange Commission do it. In addition, auditing firms should be permitted to stay with their corporations for no more than three years, so that they don't get too comfortable with each other, and so the auditors know that someone else will be coming along to check their work. The concept can be extended to other areas of regulation, such as testing of pharmaceuticals. Drug companies are responsible for testing their own products and then reporting the results to the Food and Drug Administration--a system that makes it irresistibly easy for drug firms to hide test results that show their products may have dangerous side effects or other drawbacks. Instead of self-monitoring, an independent laboratory, financed by all the companies, should conduct the testing. This would not only save money by eliminating duplication of facilities but would also be more objective. [See "Accountants: Those Wonderful People Who Brought You Maurice Stans," Thomas Redburn, February 1975, and "Tilting at Windmills," June, 1992.]

How to save politics

14. Make anyone testifying before Congress swear in.

One of the most serious problems in government for the last 25 years or so has been misleading testimony by executive branch witnesses before Congress. A tendency to gild the lily has been characteristic of such testimony from the earliest days of the Republic, but with Vietnam and Watergate, lying seemed to become standard behavior. The result has been explosive growth in the size of congressional staff as members of the Senate and House seek their own sources of information so that they can expose executive branch deception. There is a simple way to curb the lying: Testimony before Congress should be under oath, as 90 percent of it is not today. This may not deter the most determined liar, but it will remind the average witness that an obligation to tell the truth to democratically elected representatives outweighs loyalties to coworkers and agencies. [See "No Truth, No Consequences," Katie Hickox, November 1992.]

15. Reform campaign spending.

These days, on average, 60 percent of a Senate candidate's campaign budget goes for broadcast advertising; overall, the cost of TV advertising in congressional campaigns climbed 169 percent between 1976 and 1990. It's become a cliche to point out that those ads are doing precious little to meaningfully differentiate candidates or to draw more Americans into the political process. This isn't just the product of a few unscrupulous political consultants; it's the inevitable result of a system that combines high ambition with high technology and low accountability. So let's change the system. Mandate that, in exchange for free air time before an election, all political ads feature the candidate--and only the candidate--addressing the viewers at home. Sure, these ads might be dull: no uplifting music or girls in Laura Ashley dresses, no wind-blown flags or glowering rapists. But just imagine George Bush trying to woo voters by declaring, "Mike Dukakis let a scruffy black guy out of prison so he could rape a nice white lady . . .," and you get some idea of how much good this change would promote. And you don't have to bore the viewer. Remember that night in October when Ross Perot won the ratings race with his discussion of the deficit?

Cutting down the costs of advertising will help wean politicians from the influence of the PACs and their other big funders. A further reform--forbidding politicians running for state office to raise money out of state--would force them to quit cold turkey. During the last round of congressional campaigns, more than half the senators running for reelection received most of their funds from outside their states. Could Al Gore really have been considered the senator of the average Tennessean when a whopping 96.5 percent of his ticket to Washington was covered by New Yorkers, Californians, and other nonresidents? [See "The Keating 535," Andrew Bates, April 1991.] We are also very sympathetic to Jerry Brown's $100 campaign contribution limit. [See "Tilting at Windmills," March 1992.] It's delicious to imagine candidates announcing their 800 numbers on the free air time that TV and radio stations would have to provide in order to retain the licenses that we the people grant them.

16. Open up government.

The controversy that swirled around Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates last year centered, of course, on a lenient attitude towards police brutality. But it also illustrated an equally insidious, but more subtle, problem: the bureaucrat who can't be removed from office no matter how incompetent. Gates, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, couldn't be ousted despite the pleas of virtually an entire city and its political machinery. It points to an age-old problem of bureaucracy: how to prevent the unwanted official from hanging on, while at the same time maintaining the good parts of the civil service system.

The reformers who broke the political machines earlier this century had legitimate points: When patronage drove politics, government workers were often lazy and corrupt. Today, they tend to be lazy and unhelpful. Now that we've discovered that civil service rules can be as deadly to good government as smoke-filled rooms, it's time to put our lessons together. Turn 50 percent of civil servants into political appointees--not hacks, but talented people who can pass merit tests. Of course, in getting rid of half the bureaucrats, we should be careful to hold on to the good ones--which means we must eliminate "bumping," the reduction-in-force practice by which a tenured employee, when his slot is cut, can simply shove out a younger, even though better, worker and swipe his job. Once these cuts are made, we'd still have enough career, nonpolitical workers to carry the institutional memory from one administration to the next. We'd also have political appointees who are not merely competent but also committed to the ideas of each new administration and directly accountable to the voters for their performance.

Other important benefits of this reform are less immediately apparent. Ambitious, capable young Americans, instead of rolling their eyes at the notion of serving in the bureaucracy, would see a future in signing up with an exciting candidate and sweeping into office with him. To guard against the political appointees hanging around too long, limit them to four two-and-a-half-year terms. Cycling more citizens through government jobs would boost public understanding of what makes government work and what makes it break down: Journalists would return to their newspapers knowing where bodies are buried in the bureaucracy; businessmen who had performed a public stint would stop whining vaguely about "big government" and start targeting their criticisms at specific programs that waste taxpayer dollars. And all that patronage would cut the high cost of running for office: Because candidates would be able to reward loyal volunteers with jobs, they would rely less on paid professionals to staff their campaigns--which would further drive down the cost of running for office.

If this reform is too radical for the new administration, we argue that Clinton, at the very least, ought to undertake a major effort to revitalize recruiting of civil servants. Getting a government job these days, unless you know someone on the inside and get in through the buddy system, is a long dreary process, heavy with unanswered phone calls and interminable waiting. In fact, only 60 percent of government agencies have recruiting budgets--a key reason why 90 percent of college honor students don't even consider working in government. [See "Patron Saints," Lois Forer, July/August 1991.]

17. Offer a term-limits compromise.

The problem with most of the proposals to limit the terms of congressmen is that they involve sacrificing experience to encourage new blood. Our proposal is to retain the advantage of experience by keeping the Senate as is--with no term limits--while restricting House members to three four-year terms, or a total of 12 years. By offering members of the House the lure of not having to run for reelection so often, we just might persuade a reasonable number of them to support the 12-year limitation. If you know any congressmen, you know that what they hate most is having to face reelection campaigns every other year. (We suggest limits for the House rather than the Senate--even though they might make as much sense for the upper chamber--simply because we have no comparable carrot to to lure Senators into agreeing to such a reform.)

This proposal is similar to the reform we propose in civil service. In both cases, our aim is to provide the continuity and wisdom that come from experience as well as the vitality and variety that new talent can bring.

18. Encourage good civil servants to stick around longer.

The so-called "unfunded pension liability"--the amount by which planned pension benefits exceed workers' contributions--in the federal civil service alone stands at $593.8 billion. Add in pensions owed to servicemen and -women, and the total goes to over one trillion dollars. Mind you, that's just at the federal level. States, cities, and towns are grappling with an aggregate unfunded liability of between $160 billion and $450 billion. A major cause of this massive liability is that, in the federal system, a civil servant can retire with full benefits at age 55, after 30 years of service. That's why some 362,892 of federal civil service pensioners--nearly 25 percent--are still in their fifties. Servicemen can retire after 20 years, while they are still in their early forties. Likewise, in Washington, D.C. (as in many other cities), firefighters and policemen can retire after 20 years, which is why most of the city's almost $5 billion unfunded pension liability is earmarked for those two groups. The best solution is to extend the length of service. Hold on to those veteran servicemen, firemen, and policemen for at least 25 or 30 years--until they are no longer physically able to do the job. And keep those veteran civil servants, the ones who can show the appointees the ropes, until they are 65. Pension liability, it should be remembered, will also be radically reduced if our Step 16 is adopted. The patronage employees would serve short periods, never more than 10 years, and would then not be eligible for government pensions. [See "A Pension for Trouble," Matthew Cooper, July/August 1989.]

These are a few of the reforms the Monthly advocates. Got a better idea? Write and let us know.
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Title Annotation:reform proposals
Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:6548
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