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Feedback on the Center for American Progress’s “A Focus on Competitiveness: Restructuring Policymaking for Results”

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This was a post on the Doing What Works project’s competitiveness blog.

The U.S. Commerce Department last reorganized in 1988, five years before the Mosaic browser launched the Internet revolution. Nearly $3 billion in high-speed Internet infrastructure grants were administered by the secretary of agriculture. That’s right, agriculture. Every day in this information age, American students attend school on an agricultural time table in an industrial setting, with their teachers’ primary qualification being how many years they taught prior to computers entering classrooms. While there is much to be said for tradition, the way we’ve done things as a government has not always been ideal.

Kudos to CAP, therefore, for revisiting the question of government structures and their impact on American innovation, entrepreneurship, and competitiveness.

The authors are certainly correct: Our nation can do a much better job facilitating investment, fostering creativity, and enabling growth. Many of their proposed reforms and restructuring suggestions better match the global realities facing U.S. workers and employers every day. Just as successful private businesses spend significant time and effort improving their own strategies, government can and should do a better job assessing what it does and how it does it.

Of course, improved structure of government agencies is no cure for a corporate tax rate that is the second highest in the developed world and a major hindrance to U.S. competitiveness. Anachronistic trade-promotion bureaucracies did not prevent the Obama administration from sending the Columbia Free Trade Agreement to Congress, or re-finalizing a trade deal with South Korea. Politics, not process, explains 30 years of wasteful subsidies showered upon corn ethanol.

Nonetheless, reorganization is often valuable and essential. Focused advisory panels, blue ribbon task forces, and quadrennial assessments can help improve government efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness to its citizens. But we must never confuse better government with more government, as the authors implicitly acknowledge.

Adding new reports, additional layers, and overlapping panels without eliminating ineffective agencies and outdated programs could prove worse than doing nothing at all (and it’s certainly more expensive). A smarter government is probably smaller, more flexible, and better focused—one with lower taxes, less regulation, freer trade, and fewer lawsuits.

This paper would benefit if the authors extended their thinking to another frequent source of bureaucratic inertia and policy sclerosis: Congress. Many well-intentioned governmental reorganization efforts—by both parties—failed because congressional committees proved unwilling to share jurisdiction with other congressional committees. Nominees for executive appointment, both Republicans and Democrats, too often languish without vote or resolution, depriving government of capable leaders for reasons unrelated to nominees’ competence, qualifications, or convictions.

Conversely, Congress can play a significant institutional role in promoting American competitiveness, both through policy formulation and through essential oversight of executive agencies. Policymakers would no doubt benefit from CAP’s thoughts about how to maximize Congress’s contributions, while minimizing the ways in which it undermines strategic thinking.

Bruce Mehlman, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, is former assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy under President George W. Bush.

This was a post on the Doing What Works project’s competitiveness blog.

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