Friday, December 04, 2020

How Can Biden Govern? Think "Zero-Based" Governance

Stephen Griffin

 President-elect Biden faces formidable policy challenges that would daunt any incoming administration.  A still-raging pandemic, considerable economic uncertainty, and an unusually fraught international situation, among many others.  Devising responses to these challenges would not be easy even in favorable circumstances.  But circumstances are far from favorable because of the pervading climate of distrust, relatively unique in American history, of which the Trump presidency is both consequence and cause.  The issue goes further than merely registering that most Americans have low trust in government.  There is tangible evidence that tens of millions of citizens have, in effect, seceded from America, at least in terms of no longer being devoted to the “nation” as distinct from allegiance to a party-country located mostly in “red states” and rural counties.  They have no desire to leave and few are willing to take up arms to found a True America of the Rural Counties.  But they have left behind governance norms as they are understood by longstanding denizens of Washington, D.C. – including Joe Biden.

So I offer here some historical and constitutional suggestions on how Biden can govern in a pervasive low-trust environment.

Taking the Covid-19 pandemic as a starter, Biden faces the reality that it has actually been quite a while since any president, Democratic or Republican, asked the American people to sacrifice for anything.  Notably President Bush did not after 9/11, something that was widely remarked on at the time.  People of a certain age might remember President Carter asking Americans to treat the energy crisis as the “moral equivalent of war.”  Post-World War II presidents got in the habit of over-using the metaphor of war to summon an extraordinary public commitment or to mark certain policies as having a superordinate status.  Whatever the merits of the metaphor, what we should notice is that it assumes a relatively high trust environment – along with, by the way, a familiarity, largely missing today, with what an all-out war effort actually entails.  If most Americans lack this experience, what is a president to do?

There are no guidebooks for governing in a low-trust environment.  This suggests Biden must pursue an unconventional path if he wants to accomplish anything of substance.  I will call my suggestion in chief “zero-based governance.”

Harking back again to the late 1970s, the Carter administration promoted a concept Carter was familiar with from his days as Georgia governor called “zero-based budgeting.”  As I understand it, the idea was to force government agencies to justify everything they were doing during each budget cycle, thus steering them away from simply asking for marginal increases in every program every year.  The takeaway for the Biden administration: be prepared to justify everything from the ground up.

Zero-based governance assumes the persistence of the current low-trust environment and thus enjoins officials to take nothing (I mean no thing!) for granted.  On this model the validity of the credentials of any expert must be reauthenticated on demand.  But how to proceed along this line?  Through a particularly ruthless form of pragmatism, judging by consequences.  A very small “p” populist consequentialism, that is.  So, for example, we don’t listen to Anthony Fauci because he actually is one of the world’s foremost experts on infectious disease (something I agree with, of course).  We listen to him because his advice (or the CDC’s and so on) can help us save our lives, our businesses, our economy – and here’s the important part –  relative to the advice of anyone else, particularly “independent” experts nattering on tv and social media.  Low-trust governance is pervasively comparative.  It’s line is not, “who’s your expert, what’s your authority,” but rather, “show me the money,” i.e., that your advice actually works.  I’m afraid this entails demoting or dismissing any expert whose advice doesn’t work.  That there are consequences for bad advice is intuitively crucial to rebuilding public trust, as it shows the officials in ultimate charge are not simply careerists protecting their credentialed friends.  And so yes, “you’re fired” should remain very alive in the arsenal of the Biden administration.

The Biden administration must place a relentless emphasis on demonstrating to the public the concrete and specific consequences of ignoring the advice of experts.  It kills your friends.  It closes businesses.  In other words, however obvious this sounds, the pandemic is the fundamental cause of our economic distress, not government action.  Perhaps the media should be allowed to essentially camp out in the health system.  More media reporting should be allowed in hospitals, for example, where it is my impression reporting has been limited because of an understandable concern for restrictions.  At the same time, if particular government agencies, such as the CDC, made mistakes in the pandemic, those must be clearly acknowledged on government websites with information provided as to how the problem was fixed.

Zero-based governance also means there should be an aggressive and rigid commitment to equality of treatment.  Everyone, especially public officials, must follow exactly the same rules to the letter.  So, no meals at the French Laundry (or large parties at the State Department)!  No more traveling to Cabo while exhorting those at home to stay there!  Any official, high or petty, national or local, who deviates from mandated Covid-19 restrictions must apologize and highly resolve going forward to practice what they preach – or resign.

Parenthetically, I infer this probably does not get us to what conservatives would regard as a level playing field.  From their perspective what would be required to restore trust between experts and the public would be to have all public health experts that were silent or approving during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer ask for public forgiveness for not even-handedly applying their own standards.  Of course, many demonstrators did wear masks but what conservatives noticed was the deafening silence from experts as the demonstrations and summer went on.  Here Biden does have personal credibility in that he did wear a mask from an early point, practiced social distancing and so on.  He also has the advantage of invoking the fresh start for the country that any new presidential administration can lay claim to.

The next strategy I recommend for survival a zero-based environment is one that often strikes political experts as orthogonal.  Biden needs to make it clear that he stands for fundamental political reform.  There are actually good reasons for Americans to be disgusted with the operation of their political system.  One top priority for reform?  Congress itself.  When the curve of public trust goes down, Congress is almost always at the bottom.  Biden should recognize this and regard it as an opportunity rather than, as Obama did, a situation that calls for the president to rely on Congress’s good faith.  Meaningful advocacy of political reform, including reforms the center-left likes, like non-partisan legislative districting, is both good policy and makes a lot of sense to voters angry at both parties.  In this respect, Majority Leader McConnell is the near-perfect foil to demonstrate the Senate’s inability to act on important national issues.  Here, as Sandy Levinson, Robert Dahl and other scholars have pointed out for years, many changes can be rung by a properly assertive president.  The Senate’s nonrepresentative character, abetted by supermajority rules like the filibuster which should have been abolished decades ago, are examples.  Yes, as a former senator, this will be a tall order for Biden.  But he cannot afford to be identified one of the most archaic and distrusted institutions in the country.  Congress and our political system require reform and Biden should be leading the way.

Biden is clearly in for an information war the likes of which the country has rarely seen, with the opposition being led by Trump himself.  Expect the kind of distortions we saw in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, such as the “death panel” controversy.  The Biden administration needs an active strategy for not simply advocating its own proposals but keeping the opposition off-balance.  One possible way to do this in a low-trust environment is to use nonpolitical actors, ordinary citizens as a way of lending support to public policies.  Some of them may receive retaliation in response.  That too, should be documented and used to suggest the nature of the opposition in difficult times.  As Bryce Covert suggests, one way to do this is by paying close attention to the results from the just-approved ballot initiatives.  Increasing the minimum wage should be overdetermined at this point – if it is not front and center in the Biden non-Covid agenda, something is quite wrong.  Giving direct democracy its due can offset the inevitable impression of the Biden administration as credentialed elitists imposing their will on the rest of America.

A low-trust environment with a former president goosing the opposition demands a different approach than the D.C. standard – zero-based governance.  Take nothing for granted.  Judge by proven results, not credentials.  Adhere rigidly to a norm of equal treatment for all, especially with respect to your friends in government.  Embrace the necessity of fundamental political reform and create new approaches to convincing citizens that the government actually has their back this time.



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