Magazine article The American Prospect

Department of Change: Five Places to Start Remaking the Government

Magazine article The American Prospect

Department of Change: Five Places to Start Remaking the Government

Article excerpt

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," Barack Obama said during his Inaugural Address.

A government that works seems like an obvious goal. But conservatives in the Bush administration and their ideological predecessors in the Reagan administration made an art out of using government against government, especially in sub-Cabinet positions that fly below most observers' radar. Though conservatives have never come close to actually shrinking the federal bureaucracy, they have succeeded in preventing government from doing its job--a nice judo trick.

Voters repudiated that philosophy on Election Day. With a mandate to fix government, Obama's new appointees have the opportunity to try some jujitsu of their own by using federal offices where scandals were hatched, science was ignored, and the law was shattered to promote sound public policy. But making government work is only half the mission. The next step, implementing a truly liberal public-policy agenda, demands vision and a willingness to use the full potential of the government.

As Obama takes office, the heads of the biggest executive-branch departments have, understandably, received the bulk of the media coverage. But Cabinet secretaries cannot personally oversee their entire department and are often occupied with major agenda items. At lower rungs on the ladder, the right appointee has more control--and thus more ability to create real change. When the president and his Cabinet put forth major initiatives, these officials are the ones who will actually execute them, making decisions along the way that determine whether the policies will succeed or fail.

Here are five offices to watch as Obama's administration attempts to realize its agenda.

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OFFICE OF INFORMATION AND REGULATORY AFFAIRS

MANDATE: Act as a clearinghouse for all federal regulations, from environmental rules to work-safety guidelines, in an effort to help centralize the complex regulatory process.

THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Stop regulation. The Reagan administration used OIRA as a veto point--reviewing, and rejecting, thousands of regulations proposed by federal agencies each year. The office blocked regulations that could have provided environmental protections, moderated health risks in food and medicine, and kept employees safe at work. George W. Bush's first appointment as OIRA director was John Graham, who had previously led an AT&T Wireless-funded study that, predictably, found that driving while using a cell phone isn't dangerous. In his first year at OIRA, Graham rejected more regulations than were refused during the entire Clinton administration.

THE LIBERAL APPROACH: Create a regulatory regime for the modern economy. Obama has appointed well-known Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein to head the office, indicating that the new administration has bold plans for it. Sunstein is known as a pragmatic thinker, and his credentials have been questioned by some progressives who see his approach to regulatory regimes as too similar to that of the last administration's. But Sunstein has reiterated his commitment to strong regulation, and given that many of the new president's policy goals won't be achieved without effective rule-making, there is good reason to believe he will be a force for improvement within OIRA. Indeed, though Sunstein favors the cost-benefit approach to regulations used by Graham, he will likely factor in the costs like climate change and income inequality that never crossed conservatives' minds.

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OFFICE OF LEGAL COUNSEL

MANDATE: Provide "authoritative legal advice" to the entire executive branch, especially in the case of a disagreement between different departments.

THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Pave the way for presidential acts, unfettered by traditional checks and balances. …

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