Friday, August 15, 2008

A book we're reading (A Government Ill Executed 1)

One of the many books we're reading at TPB is Paul Light's A Government Ill Executed. The title, and much of the book's framework, is derived from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Paper essays concerning the Constitution's provisions on the executive branch of the federal government:
A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory must be in practice, a bad government.
The Federalist Papers, you'll recall, was a series of newspaper articles written in support of the new Constitution to help persuade delegates to the New York ratifying conventions to support it. Penned primarily by Hamilton and James Madison (with a few by John Jay) The Federalist Papers are still must reading for those who wish to understand our system of government.

Whether its one of the many security breaches, loss of private information about its citizens, the breakdown in our response to Hurricane Katrina, public health scares from imported toys and food, etc., there have been numerous examples of government's failure to perform its most basic function. The most notable in my view is the intelligence failures that led us to our failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and then misinformed our debate over whether to invade Iraq. This isn't a partisan problem and many of the issues Light discusses have been around for a long time.

Light proposes that we dust off The Federalist Papers, particularly those Hamilton wrote numbered 70-77 on the functioning of the executive branch and see if there are lessons that can be applied today to restore the competent execution of government. This is an important task. All too often we ask whether Congress has past a law to address a problem, and forget that without competent enforcement what Congress has done is meaningless. We need to go beyond the passage of the law and look at its execution to see if something has really been done to address the problems we set out to solve.

Although this seems to be such basic, common sense, it seems we take it for granted that Congress's will expressed in legislation will operate as intended. As Light illustrates, too many recent events show we can no longer do so. It is time that we reexamine the day to day operations of our federal government "in the trenches" to find what's wrong with our governent's performance and how we can solve it. Despite having worked in Congress for 10 years, I'm convinced that the answer isn't simply passing more laws, but rather rolling up our sleeves and doing the sort of boring "housekeeping" necessary to enjoy, once again, the benefits of a government will executed.

In short, as I work through the book, I'll post short summaries and my own thoughts from having worked on these issues in Congress and now from my perch outside government. I can tell you from reading the first few chapters and a speech Light delivered on the same topics that it will be highly instructive and always thought provoking.

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