Process rather than outcome has become the new definition of governing in D.C. and that’s not good for America.
The inside story of how a controversial bill is passed or a presidential decision is reached has historical value. But when day-to-day political discourse thrives on gossipy renditions of process as we see now rather than focusing on the outcomes these actions will deliver, a disillusioned electorate is the unfortunate consequence.
And there is plenty of blame to go around for the deteriorating political environment.
Legislators and D.C. lobbying groups are advised by political consultants on both sides who tend to shun substantive policy, opting for a few words that work or a catchy, preferably negative, message that fits neatly into a 30-second spot. Pundits and the media focus on insider tell-alls to satisfy political junkies who get their daily fix from ticktocks and anonymous sources. Meanwhile, policy wonks tout solutions, many in search of a problem. And we wonder why people have lost faith in politics.
Americans are tired of process. They don’t want to know how the sausage is made. Who is up and who is down in D.C. Which party is at fault this week or predictions of who will take the fall next week. They really don’t care about the internal machinations of the Republican or Democratic House and Senate conferences.
All they want to know about the “sausage” is whether it will impact them and how.
Yet it is process that dominates the news, dominates political discourse and disrupts the legislative agenda. The only folks who should be concerned about process are those with a penchant for hot dogs and Velveeta, not the Washington political class — not if it is going to govern effectively, and governing effectively is what the American people expect.
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Perhaps we focus on the policy process these days because defining policy outcomes is so much harder — for everybody involved. Take the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare. It was easy to simply call for the end of the Affordable Care Act; defining its replacement and what health outcomes it would deliver, not so much.
Republicans lost that battle last year because they were unable to tell the American people what a repeal would mean for them. They couldn’t define an outcome, only an action.
On the other hand, the outcomes delivered by the Republican tax reform bill can be far more easily defined and proved — in dollars and cents. People are beginning to understand that the benefits of tax reform will be seen in their paychecks with higher wages and lower taxes, more jobs, and increased economic growth.
Ideology comes into play when either party defines the outcome of a particular policy proposal. But liberalism or conservatism in and of itself isn’t an outcome.
It’s a tool that helps deliver an outcome. Think of a screwdriver. As a tool, it has value but it’s what you create with the screwdriver that matters.
The issue of education is another good example. While people differ — sometimes strongly — about how to improve America’s failing education system, everyone agrees on the importance of education to the country’s future, with the next generation of students facing an increasingly complex and challenging work environment.
Republicans often talk about the need for more school choice and reducing the federal role. Democrats want to limit school choice and increase funding for public schools. This disagreement reflects the ideological differences between the parties that translate into a process debate. What gets lost in the discussion is one very important issue: student outcomes.
How will parents be able to judge each party’s policy proposals without a reasonable understanding of the outcomes they will produce? The issue of graduation rates has become the poster child for this kind of process versus outcome policymaking.
When graduation rates became the latest education evaluation tool, it didn’t take long before some schools began gaming the system. In some high schools, lower standards or simply looking the other way with poor-performing students turned diplomas into something akin to participation trophies.
The outcomes, in this case?
Barely a third of students are proficient in math and English, and unprepared college students face increased costs as they need remedial classes to do college-level work. As a result, they rack up college loans to learn what they should have learned in high school.
As Democrats and Republicans develop education policies, both parties need to step back and define the outcomes of their policies first. When a student graduates from high school, what is the minimal level of knowledge that a graduate must have to be a successful member of society and how will a specific policy deliver that outcome?
Whether it’s education policy, welfare reform or health care, ideology drives process in Washington. It always has.
But defining outcomes that matter to people should push the process, not the other way round.
When process supersedes outcomes, our political system devolves into the kind of personalities and partisanship we’re seeing now. It may be entertaining, it may get clicks and eyeballs, but it isn’t governing.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.