Practical Fixes for a Broken Washington

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on September 18, 2016.

Like many Americans, I believe our government is broken. America’s infrastructure is decrepit, harming the environment as well as our competitiveness. More than 30% of health-care spending goes to administrative costs, not patient care. Regulatory costs are more than a third higher for small businesses than for large companies. Washington gorges on huge deficits, leaving our children to pay the bill.

Change is in the air. Anti-Washington sentiment is causing voters to abandon old beliefs and reach for outsiders. What’s missing is a coherent vision of change. There’s much to complain about, on the left and the right: slow growth, income inequality, loss of good jobs, the continued struggle of African-Americans and polarized politics, to name a few. But the public anger has no clear focus, and neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has presented a consistent theme of change.

Mrs. Clinton sees lots of trees, not the forest, and is viewed as the candidate of the status quo. Mr. Trump is running as an outsider and strong man, but will have neither the vision nor mandate to overhaul entrenched structures. Whoever wins, angry voters are likely to be even angrier four years from now.

Common Good, the nonprofit of which I am chairman, has a clear, bipartisan plan for fixing broken government: Simplify regulation so that individual responsibility, not rote bureaucracy, is the organizing principle of government. Laws should set goals and guiding principles, with clear lines of authority. Simple frameworks will be sufficient, in most areas, to replace thousands of pages of micro-regulation.

Environmental review could be done in a year or two, not a decade, if an official has the job of deciding what is important. Health-care regulations could be scaled back so doctors don’t spend nearly half their time on electronic health records and administrative tasks. Creating a one-stop shop for small-business permits would go a long way to revive the American spirit of entrepreneurship.

No brilliant systems are required—just the ability to be practical. This overhaul is not partisan. Former Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, former Govs. Mitch Daniels (Indiana) and Tom Kean (New Jersey) have joined the Common Good movement.

How do we determine which regulations and laws are good or bad? The litmus test is results: What’s good is what works. Achieving practicality requires creating structures that are adaptable and allow trial and error. The current system is far too rigid—cast-iron regulatory manacles can’t adapt quickly, waste taxpayer money and impose a deadweight on freedom.

The important question is whether regulation in practice enhances our freedom. Practical regulation should enhance security and common goals—say, to oversee the quality of health care and safety of products and workplaces. Today’s regulatory morass paralyzes productive choices, by regulators as well as citizens.

Policy leaders talk about change, but almost no one will step up. Big change is too scary. Better to promote a few reforms here and there. “The more miserable a man is,” the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin observed, ”the more he dreads every sort of change, lest it make him more wretched still.”

But change is coming. The thunderclaps mean that big shifts may not be far away. What will it look like? It’s time to confront with clear eyes the failures of Washington. What’s scary is to leave change to the pitchforks.

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