A return to common-sense governing

Oxford / MCT

Sometimes you just don’t know how things you write about are going to be perceived or what might occur as a consequence. After my column on the farce of regulatory reform hit Florida papers, an interesting series of events occurred.

First I received a book in the mail titled The Rule of Nobody by Philip K. Howard. The book jacket displayed complementary reviews by several well-known people, including Jon Stewart and Fareed Zakaria. That spiked my interest, so I Googled Mr. Howard and learned he was the author of the best-selling book, The Death of Common Sense.

His basic premise in both of these books is that our current system is broken and we need a new idea of how to govern.

At once I felt that we were kindred spirits. I’ve often believed that all this rhetoric about less government and fewer regulations was just that — political rhetoric. Seldom was there a real effort to address old laws and regulations that are drowning us in bureaucratic red tape, expense and delay.

Imagine my delight when I received a phone call from Howard himself to discuss our mutual interest in government reform. What a great opportunity to pick the brain of a well-respected lawyer, author, lecturer and government reformer.

In 2002, Howard formed Common Good, which advocates reforms to restore reliability to law and to rebuild authority structures needed to make common-sense choices.

It’s important to note that neither of us is anti-government. We both believe in the rule of law and the need for workable laws and regulations. But we also share a belief that rules were never meant to replace common-sense, educated decision-making. No two situations are exactly alike, and government officials need to be given the authority to meet the intent or goal of the law with some flexibility and innovation.

Howard believes that law is supposed to be a framework for humans to make choices, not the replacement for free choice.

During our conversation, we took turns highlighting example after example of the failure of government. Employees, fearful of not complying with every regulation, pass decisions on to someone else who does the same. The problem: No one feels empowered to actually make a decision based on the facts of the individual case unless it fits neatly into a predetermined rule, which is unlikely.

We agreed that protections are needed for our natural resources and our desire for better decision-making is not at the expense of that protection. We have the science, we put good knowledgeable experts in place, but we have them so worried about adherence to the rules that they abandon common sense and science-based decision-making for fear of legal challenges or worse, losing their jobs.

We also discussed education and how too many laws and regulations are choking teachers’ ability to be innovative and effective. We need to restore teachers’ authority to maintain order by decreasing bureaucracy in schools.

The current education debate has not adequately addressed the impact that overregulation has had on school culture and academic performance. In short, we are enthusiastic advocates of giving public schools the same freedom, and accountability, as charter schools.

Even when trying to stimulate our economy, President Obama ran into hurdle after hurdle within his own agencies in fast-tracking infrastructure projects, even when those projects were repairing existing infrastructure such as crumbling roads and bridges.

While there’s much more to it, there are two basic reforms that would get government back on the right track:

Radically simplify law. Laws must be understandable to be effective, and they should set public goals and general principles while leaving implementation to designated officials. Instead of laws telling people how to do their job, provide clear lines of accountability.

Sunset old laws. The accumulation of law precludes elected officials from making critical choices. Congress and state legislatures must periodically revisit old laws to determine their effectiveness and relevance.

It will take a sustained effort to both limit new laws and regulations while also reviewing, updating and removing old ones.

With all the talk of accountability, it seems we are reluctant to extend authority to government officials and to hold them accountable. While we lay the blame on them for shirking responsibility, the truth is we have not afforded them the opportunity to take responsibility. I believe they would wholeheartedly welcome it.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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