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Congress Needs Tools of the Future to Save Past Gains

President-elect Barack Obama is currently besieged with proposals for the future, but he must also decide what he should do to maintain government’s greatest achievements of the 20th century.

[IMGCAP(1)]If a democracy is judged by the problems that it tries to solve, America has been ambitious, indeed. Name an international or domestic problem, and the federal government has been asked to do something about it.

Even though government has sometimes failed in what Alexander Hamilton called extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit, it has also created a remarkable record of impact. It rebuilt Europe after World War II, expanded the vote, won the Cold War, cut the federal deficit, reduced disease and helped older Americans achieve a measure of financial and

medical security.

That was then, and this is now, however. Many of these achievements are in peril. Having conquered polio and smallpox, for example, the federal government reduced its investments in solving other diseases and preparing for a global pandemic. Having won the Cold War, the federal government assumed Russia would be compliant. And having finally balanced the budget, the federal government thought the national debt would go down.

It is easy to blame the Bush administration for these disappointments. George W. Bush was president when the stock market collapsed, Hurricane Katrina hit and the deficit soared. But Congress deserves its share of blame, too. It deregulated the financial markets, merged the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the woefully disorganized Department of Homeland Security and passed the Bush tax cuts.

Government’s greatest achievements are also rusting because of the persistent disinvestment in the administrative infrastructure of government. It is no longer clear, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration can assure safe food and drinking water, let alone protect the nation from counterfeit drugs.

Neither is it clear that the Federal Highway Administration can keep the interstate highway system running smoothly, that the Social Security Administration can manage its disability programs, that the Veterans Benefits Administration can quickly process veterans’ claims or that the Federal Aviation Administration can maintain a safe airspace.

The question now is not who to blame, however, but how the president and Congress can protect government’s past achievements while meeting new challenges such as global warming, energy independence and terrorism.

Doing so involves at least three changes in how Congress works.

First, Congress needs new tools for understanding the future. Sustaining achievements of the past involves projections of the future. How fast will health costs rise? How long can defense equipment last? How many children will be born? Having dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment as part of the Republican “Contract with America” in 1995, Congress has lost much of its capacity to see into the future. This is why it needs a new Office of Long-Range Analysis to explore the many scenarios that will buffet the nation over the next 10, 20, even 100 years.

Second, Congress needs new legislative mechanisms for solving the long-term threats that are undermining past successes. The policy agenda is packed with no-yield issues that involve nothing but pain in the present and uncertain gain in the future. Congress can avoid the problem by setting triggers for action far into the future. If the life span increases by, say, two years by 2015, for example, a trigger might be pulled on retirement age; if sea levels rise by a few centimeters, a trigger might be pulled on higher mileage standards. Instead of making decisions on such changes in the present, Congress would make decisions about future action based on scientific evidence.

Finally, Congress needs the courage to act. Even triggers will not protect Congress from threatened interests. Merely raising questions about the problems that might undermine governments past achievements will prompt debate about whether a problem exists at all. This is why Congress needs the courage to engage the issues. Its Office of Long-Range Analysis could produce an annual futures agenda to help, while a new joint committee on long-range policy assessment might provide a valuable platform for educating each chamber. Congress could even require the president to submit an annual futures report outlining the projected status of threatened achievements, past and future.

None of these tools will work if Congress remains mired in circular debates about whether there are any threats at all. Past achievements have already been eroded, while future endeavors are anything but secure. Congress needs help to shape the future. By its example, Congress can help the Obama administration confront the future, too.

Paul C. Light is a professor at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University and author of “A Government Ill Executed.”

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