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Better leadership needed to get US government working again

May 22, 2014

Why has it become so difficult for our federal government to negotiate, come to agreement and pass legislation? How can we improve the policymaking process in Washington to boost overall government effectiveness?

Two panels of government leaders and policy analysts addressed these questions at a National and Global Issues Forum sponsored by Arizona State University, May 22, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The panelists, welcomed by ASU President Michael M. Crow, included Trent Lott, former U.S. senate majority leader, R-MS; Evan Bayh, former governor and former U.S. senator, D-IN; Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Michael Barone, senior policy analyst of the Washington Examiner. Moderators were Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, and Jon Kyl, former U.S. Senate Majority Whip, R-AZ.

Kyl is also a Distinguished Fellow in Public Service in ASU's College of Public Programs and an O’Connor Distinguished Scholar of Law and Public Service in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Crow, in his welcome, said bemoaning what is wrong with U.S. government does nothing to solve the problem. He encouraged the panelists to probe how government and the governing process are designed, and to discuss solutions to breaking the gridlock.

While the discussion and solutions from both panels were diverse, there were several common threads: presidential leadership could be stronger; congressional leaders need more dedicated supporters in their own parties; there needs to be respect for difference of opinion and debate; and the state presidential primary process needs improvement.

“The center has fallen away in the house,” said Bayh, adding that only 18 percent of republicans voted in the primary, and those were likely the most extreme of voters. The situation was similar with the democrats.

“Once in office, you are expected to vote with the party down the line, or lose financial support,” Bayh added, saying that compromise is statesmanship, yet is often viewed as betrayal.

Wallace asked the panelists if President Obama could be doing a better job leading. Both Bayh and Lott agreed that Obama has many strengths, but that his inexperience as an executive has hurt him in office. Lott said it would be helpful if the president engaged members of Congress more, as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did when they were in office. He also said that members of Congress at that time, while differing on issues, were not as polarized on a personal level.

“Members of Congress today don’t spend enough time here; their families are at home,” he said. “They don’t know each other, they don’t socialize with each other."

The topic of presidential primaries focused on two different possible solutions: open primaries and strengthening the existing parties to make it more unlikely that extreme candidates get on the ballot. The goal is to have more moderate candidates from both parties in office who are more amenable to working through differences in the best interests of the country.

Rauch also suggested that congressional earmarks, while needing to be transparent, helped party leaders move legislation forward.

“We don’t have a crisis of leadership, we have a crisis of followership,” he said. “There are few incentives to reward and protect the followers, who help move legislation forward and minimize the detractors. That is when party leadership falls victim to outside influence.”

Wallace argued that you have to have leaders who want to lead and, with both parties on weaker political ground, they are reluctant to do so. Both parties, he said, are afraid of losing the next election instead of being focused on what is best for the country.

Kyl agreed, adding that the 24-hour news industry contributes to this fear, as it starts focusing on the next election the day after someone has been seated in office.

“We used to have twelve to fifteen months after an election to legislate, to take a breather and do the job,” he said, adding that the constant news coverage and focus on controversy to build viewership has created a new challenge for today’s political leaders.