The Vital Republican Role for Fixing Broken Government | Opinion

In his recent speech to Congress, President Joe Biden called upon America to "prove democracy still works."

While many Americans agree with much of what he proposes, making government work requires more than new spending. Failing schools, unaccountable police, decade-long infrastructure permitting and other public failures have convinced most Americans that democracy needs reform, not just greater ambitions.

Two-thirds of Americans, according to a 2019 AP/University of Chicago poll, believe government needs "major structural changes." Yet political realities leave Democrats mute on reforming government. Neither Biden nor the Democrats in Congress will fix the imbedded bureaucratic rigidities because of their political alliances with public unions and other interest groups.

This weakness in Democratic policy presents an opening for Republicans to champion common sense solutions for broken public operating systems. A Republican Party with a positive governing vision can benefit all Americans. Without the pressure of a Republican vision for better government, any version of the Biden infrastructure and jobs plan will be burdened by the legacy bureaucracies that guarantee delay and waste.

Instead of presenting a positive governing vision, however, the Republican Party hews to a broad anti-government philosophy. Republican action amounts to little more than "just say no." This strategy appeals to a base of alienated voters who embrace Donald Trump as the oracle for ridiculing government. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell revels in his role as Dr. No: "One hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration."

Nothing much good comes of a Republican Party wallowing in negativity and conspiracy theories. As the party of No, Republicans lose most of their leverage to lead Americans toward a positive future, including responsible fiscal policy and cutting red tape. By stirring up resentment on the right, Republicans also legitimize similarly-divisive groups on the left. For certain Republican strategists, there's no better way to fill their coffers than to incite left-wing extremists.

The loser is America. Without a positive Republican governing vision, voters are left with Hobson's choices—either nativist exclusion or a woke reign of terror, either no public programs or ineffective programs that squander public resources.

A few Republican leaders, notably Congresswoman Liz Cheney, have been willing to break from what she calls the "Trump cult of personality." Republicans have an obligation to "make democracy work," Cheney wrote last week. Republicans have not historically been the party of No—Theodore Roosevelt created national parks, Dwight D. Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, Richard Nixon signed the first environmental laws, Ronald Reagan created base-closing commissions, George H. W. Bush championed the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"Reagan formed a broad coalition from across the political spectrum to return America to sanity," Cheney said last week, "and we need to do the same now."

Cheney is not winning this battle, but the war for the Republican soul is only beginning. Splinter groups have started forming, with the first goal of severing the link to Donald Trump and unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

U.S. flag
The sun rises behind a flag. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

The next step is to present a positive vision. Instead of reflexively opposing all government, Republicans could advocate a governing vision grounded in common sense. Republicans can disagree on the scope of government while also demanding that public programs be judged by their effectiveness. Most government programs will work better if restructured to honor principles that conservatives espouse, such as personal responsibility, fiscal responsibility, practical tradeoffs and adaptability to the local circumstances.

It's been a few decades since Republicans presented their own governing vision, but applying these conservative principles offers an opportunity to fix broken government. Here are possible concrete platforms that Republican leaders could champion:

Eliminate delay and waste in infrastructure projects. As part of the deal to accept some of Biden's proposed infrastructure plan, Republicans could demand streamlined permitting and oversight to prevent featherbedding and other wasteful contract practices.

Revive public accountability. There is no effective accountability at any level of American government. Public supervisors are powerless to terminate, and even manage, civil servants, teachers, police and other public employees. No accountability means democracy can't work: Voters elect leaders who are powerless to manage public departments sensibly. No accountability also corrodes public culture; when everyone knows job performance doesn't matter, the mutual trust needed to sustain an energetic public culture disappears. Democrats can't tackle this issue because public unions are a pillar of their political base.

Create "Spring Cleaning Commissions." Government is long overdue for a spring cleaning. Many, perhaps most, public programs don't work as intended, or are no longer needed. Instead of wholesale attacks on big government, Republicans could garner broad support for creating nonpartisan commissions with the following charter: Evaluate the actual workings of public programs and recommend new frameworks to better achieve public goals.

Empower communities. The biggest error of big government is not its goals, but the thick rulebooks that micromanage exactly how to meet the goals. Regulations should be simplified into goals and guiding principles so that people in communities and organizations have freedom to roll up their sleeves and solve problems in their own ways.

Stop jamming values down people's throats. Within the broad boundaries of law, a free society should defend the right of people and institutions to embrace their own values. Those who disagree with those values are free to go elsewhere. Instead, there is a frightening intolerance of any points of view that might deviate from party lines. This wave of illiberalism is enabled by threats of adverse government action. Republicans should defend core values of freedom and free speech.

Neither party can achieve its goals, or much of them, without a healthy opposing party. That's because without pressure from the other side, neither party can break loose from self-interested supporters, such as public unions for Democrats or wealthy taxpayers for Republicans. Unless the demands of those interest groups are neutralized in political compromise, the usual result is stalemate. That's where we are today: Nothing much gets fixed.

America needs a Republican Party with a positive governing vision. Democracy can't work when one side just says no.

Philip K. Howard is founder of Campaign for Common Good. His latest book is Try Common Sense. Follow him on Twitter: @PhilipKHoward

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.