The Blog

News and stories from the campaign to reclaim individual responsibility and liberate Americans from bureaucracy and legal fear.


PPI’s Will Marshall Proposes New Infrastructure Policy, Cites “Two Years, Not Ten Years”

Writing in Democracy, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall lays out four reforms to improve US infrastructure policy. The section on “speed[ing] regulatory review of public works projects” draws from Common Good’s “Two Years, Not Ten Years” report. An excerpt:

Lengthy approvals expose Americans to the safety hazards of unsafe bridges and roads, as well as leaks and flooding from ancient pipes and obsolete wastewater systems. Ironically, protracted environmental reviews harm the environment by slowing down the replacement of technologically primitive and inefficient infrastructure. 'Transmission lines in America waste 6 percent of the electricity they transmit—the equivalent of 200 average-size coal-burning power plants,' says Philip Howard in a Common Good report.

Why is infrastructure so entangled in red tape? A major problem is multiple and overlapping jurisdictions, as projects must get permits from a welter of agencies at different layers of government. In addition, environmental reviews in this country routinely get mired in litigation. And public hearings and meetings grind on endlessly as regulators attempt to hear from and accommodate every conceivable interest or 'stakeholder' that might be affected by a project.

In a well-functioning democracy, however, not every interested party can be or should be mollified; at some point the will of the majority should prevail. As the report notes:

Input from stakeholders and the public usually improves a project. But striving for consensus is futile, causes delays, and skews decisions toward the squeaky wheel instead of the public good. New infrastructure is unavoidably controversial. There is always an impact, and always a group that is affected more than others.

Crucially, Howard contends, there’s a vacuum of political authority at the top. In our balkanized bureaucracies, no agency or official has the power to settle disagreements among agencies, telescope the regulatory gauntlet or otherwise make the ultimate decision to move projects forward.

Marshall goes on to summarize the report’s proposed solutions. Click here to read his complete essay (“A New Kind of Public Works”).

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Matt Brown: Power Grid Gridlock

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study which concluded that the United States could massively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 if it could build a new power grid capable of large-scale integration of renewable power sources. Our current antiquated grid, according to the report, is completely inadequate to the task. Renewables are tricky because production isn’t constant; cloudy days sap solar power, while windless (or overly windy) conditions will idle wind farms. A smarter, more robust grid could seamlessly switch between distant power sources as production rises and falls, ensuring efficient power delivery nationwide.

Even absent the massive environmental gains we’d reap from NOAA’s renewables-based plan, simply replacing our grid with a more efficient one would save our country over $125 billion a year in efficiency and reliability improvements, according to Common Good’s 2015 infrastructure report.

The case for a new grid is strong, but building a brand new national power grid is a massive project, spanning vast distances and requiring a huge investment of time, resources, and expertise. Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author of the study, likened the proposal to the interstate highway system, both in terms of scope, and in terms of the potential to transform the American economy.

Unfortunately, the comparison doesn't end there. Much like the interstate highway system, a new national power grid would be virtually impossible to build today. Three months after the original interstate highway bill was passed, shovels were in the ground, and within ten years of its authorization, the interstate highway system was halfway complete, with over 21,000 miles of roads. That timeline is laughably unrealistic today; between federal environmental review requirements, lawsuits arising from those requirements, and the overlay of state and local permitting regimes (including disagreement between states on inter-state projects), a project of that magnitude would take decades just to permit. In fact, President Obama proposed a more modest modernization of the power grid as part of the 2009 stimulus spending, but quickly found out that the regulatory hurdles would be impossible to clear. Without drastic changes to our legal system, we certainly won’t be building a new national power grid by 2030.

A gauntlet of legal obstacles stands in the way of sensible permitting timelines. Federal environmental review (under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA) would be mind-boggling. Review for the Bayonne Bridge-raising project, a project with negligible impacts which was entirely within the existing structure of the extant bridge, took three years and produced a 20,000-page report. The review for a national grid would likely require decades and span millions of pages.

Lawsuits would add years to the process. The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts was stuck in legal limbo for a decade while NIMBY lawsuits wound their way through the courts. A project of this scale would bring every possible litigant out of the woodwork, each working at cross-purposes to defeat the project, or to at least extract a reward in exchange for acquiescence.

Coordinating state permitting and local permitting would present another enormous challenge. An article from Climate Central describing the NOAA study glumly concluded that "[i]t is unlikely that such a system will be built before 2030 because states that may be opposed to a renewables transmission system have too much control over how and where it is built."

Recalcitrant states will certainly pose a problem, but the coordination issues run much deeper than that. Permitting for transmission lines varies significantly between states. In some states, individual towns and counties have veto authority on transmission-line siting. Some states require major permitting investments before siting decisions can be completed, while other won’t issue any permits until after siting has been finalized, which can make planning interstate routes extremely tricky. On top of this, many states have environmental review statutes even more onerous than NEPA, and would require massive duplicate reviews. President Obama’s team concluded that their modest upgrade proposal would require signoff from over 200 agencies. That signoff can be nearly impossible to achieve; the Savannah River dredging project has been in permitting purgatory for over a quarter century due in large part to infighting between Georgia and South Carolina. To build a national grid under our current legal system would involve rent-seeking and political squabbling at every level of state and local government, across thousands of jurisdictions nationwide. The disputes and negotiations would take years, perhaps decades, to resolve.

What’s needed is a new way of building infrastructure projects, one that involves clear lines of authority, environmental review that focuses more on overall impacts and less on minutiae, and an ultimate decision-maker to move projects forward and resolve disputes. For a project of this size the federal government should explicitly preempt most (or possibly all) state and local permitting, ensuring uniform results across state lines; in exchange, states should have more control over (and less federal interference in) projects wholly within their boundaries. Siting authority should be invested either in the federal government, as it is for interstate natural gas pipelines, or in regional authorities with minimal state interference. Finally, lawsuits must be limited to the earliest months of permitting, and must be resolved rapidly and with an eye toward common sense. Common Good has proposed legislative language to achieve this change.

Building a new, renewables-friendly power grid should be a top national priority. A new grid would save us billions of dollars a year, create huge numbers of jobs, free us from dependence on foreign oil, unleash our burgeoning renewables industries, enhance American competitiveness, and slash our national carbon footprint. But under the status quo system of infrastructure approvals, 2030 will come and go before the first permit is ever issued. That delay is unacceptable, but unless we insist on a new way of permitting infrastructure projects, it’s all but inevitable.

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Philip Howard Appears on Idaho Public Television

Common Good Chair Philip Howard recently appeared on “Dialogue,” Idaho Public Television’s statewide public affairs program. The 30-minute discussion with host Marcia Franklin covers such topics as principles-based regulation, the role of judges, the need to review old laws, and how to bring about change.

“In a sensible system of government,” Howard tells Franklin, “everybody ought to be free to ask, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’ Instead we’ve got this crazy world where teachers are told never to put an arm around a crying child, and playgrounds are not allowed to have things that are fun for kids, and businesses don’t give job references, and all these things where people are paralyzed in all kinds of ways that make no sense, because of the detailed rules."

Click here to watch the full interview.

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The Oklahoman Supports Common Good Chair’s Call for ‘Grand Bargain’ on Infrastructure

The Oklahoman editorial board writes today in support of Common Good Chair Philip Howard’s recent infrastructure proposal in The Atlantic. An excerpt from the editorial:

An attorney by trade, Philip K. Howard has made a career of trying to overhaul government in order to make it more responsive and useful. An indication that he doesn't play favorites: Howard frequently calls to reduce the number of laws on the books. Indeed the title of one of his many books is 'Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law.'

It isn't the law so much as federal red tape that's the object of Howard's ire presently, and that of the reform organization he heads, Common Good ( He's calling for reducing the mountain of bureaucracy that gets in the way of upgrading the country's infrastructure — roads, bridges and power grids — with a proposal that would require cooperation from both sides of the political aisle.

Howard's idea: Conservatives agree to raise taxes to help pay for modernized infrastructure, in return for liberals agreeing to lighten up on the regulatory end. Such a deal would “cut critical infrastructure costs in half, enhance America's environmental footprint, and boost the economy,” Howard wrote in The Atlantic.

Read the full editorial here. Read Philip’s Atlantic essay here.

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Philip Howard Contributes to Public Administration Review

In the January/February 2016 issue of Public Administration Review, Common Good Chair Philip Howard shows how modern government has failed—and argues that the only solution is to restore human responsibility as government’s operating mechanism. An excerpt from “Put Humans in Charge”:

Fairness, balance, trade-offs, and practical solutions always require judgment in context. Management theorist Chester Barnard suggested that ‘at least nine-tenths of all organization activity’ must be figured out by people who actually execute the task. ‘The guy standing there looking at the hole in the ground,’ former Georgia Commissioner Joe Tanner observed, ‘is best able to tell if there's a problem and how to fill it up.’

Real people, not rules, make things happen. This is as true in public administration as it is in every other human endeavor. Rules are vital to set a framework for human responsibility, and to provide mechanisms of accountability. But rules should provide a framework, not a substitute, for official responsibility.

Building a system of public administration grounded in official responsibility is not that hard. Indeed, it would be much simpler than today's complex system of regulatory micromanagement.

Click here to read the full essay.

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Common Good Chair Proposes Grand Bargain in Essay for the Atlantic

Writing for the Atlantic, Philip Howard proposes a deal between Democrats and Republicans that would improve America’s infrastructure in a streamlined fashion. In short, the bargain calls for more funding for less process. Howard explains:

There’s a way to break the logjam caused by a lack of needed funding and an overabundance of process. Conservatives concerned about wasteful government should agree to raise taxes to fund infrastructure if liberals agree to abandon the bureaucratic tangle that causes the waste. This deal will cut critical infrastructure costs in half, enhance America’s environmental footprint, and boost the economy.

Adequate funding will get America moving with safe and efficient infrastructure. And abandoning years of process need not undermine environmental goals or public transparency. The key, as in Germany and Canada, is to allocate authority to make needed decisions within a set time frame. Public input is vital, but it can be accomplished in months. Plus, input is more effective at the beginning of the process, as adjustments can be made before any plan is set in the legal concrete of multi-thousand-page environmental-review statements.

Click here to read “How to Fix America's Infrastructure” in full. And click here to access Common Good’s recent report on how to streamline infrastructure permitting, “Two Years, Not Ten Years.”

UPDATE: Click here to watch Philip’s January 3rd appearance on MSNBC to discuss his proposal.

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Philip Howard Writes Essay for Ripon Forum Issue on Obsolete Law

The new issue of the Ripon Forum, a journal for Republican leadership in Congress and beyond, focuses on a core Common Good theme—the need to fix old laws—and includes a lead essay by Common Good Chair Philip Howard. Removing or fixing obsolete programs (not just stopping new regulation) is vital to an effective government as well as a vigorous economy.

Click here to read Howard's full essay. (And click here to access the legislative language on infrastructure streamlining mentioned in the essay.)

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Presidential Candidates Cite “Two Years, Not Ten Years” Report

Hillary Clinton’s $500 billion infrastructure proposal announced on Sunday, November 29, includes a commitment to “cut red tape and enhance accountability,” citing Common Good’s report “Two Years, Not Ten Years.”

William Galston’s column today in the Wall Street Journal, discussing the Clinton plan, specifically endorses Common Good’s “landmark report,” noting that “[o]ther democracies can plan, fund and execute projects in less time than it takes in the U.S. to complete the required environmental-impact statements.”

In September Jeb Bush in his regulatory proposal also specifically called for infrastructure approvals to be completed “within two years instead of 10,” citing the Common Good report.

We hope other candidates will also address the high cost and environmental harm caused by infrastructure red tape. Radically simplifying the process is essential to modernizing America’s infrastructure. 

We ask all Common Good supporters who meet with presidential and congressional candidates to ask them about reforming red tape infrastructure. This is an important, nonpartisan issue that needs public discussion and candidate focus. 


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Philip Howard Leads Panel at Center on Capitalism and Society’s Annual Conference

On November 9, Common Good’s Philip Howard chaired a panel at Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society’s 13th Annual Conference. The panel, titled “How Evolving Social Values Suppress Individual Initiative,” also featured NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, Swarthmore College’s Barry Schwartz, and Lapham’s Quarterly Lewis Lapham. Click the picture below to watch the panel in full.

At the end of September, Philip was named an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at the Center – you can read about that here. Click here to watch more video from the annual conference, including a luncheon presentation by entrepreneur Peter Thiel.

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Philip Howard Presents at Municipal Art Society’s 2015 Summit

On October 22, Common Good Chair Philip Howard presented at the Municipal Art Society of New York’s 2015 summit. Click the image below to watch his six-minute talk, titled “Two Years, Not Ten Years.”

Click here to access Common Good’s recent “Two Years, Not Ten Years” report on infrastructure permitting.

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