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Why can’t we run government like a business? Start by blaming Congress

Only a Pollyanna would expect Republicans to come to their senses

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and other Republicans are a big reason why government is so inefficient, columnist Walter Shapiro writes.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and other Republicans are a big reason why government is so inefficient, columnist Walter Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call)

Why can’t we run the government like a business?

That question represents one of the oldest refrains in politics, embraced by candidates and voters alike.

It was at the core of this Ronald Reagan 1986 press conference jibe: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”

And Donald Trump embodied it in his unlikely 2016 presidential campaign as he portrayed himself — ignoring bankruptcies and unpaid bills — as the greatest businessman since Midas cornered the market in gold.

The question takes on renewed relevance as the federal government lurches toward defaulting on the national debt because Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his merry band of House incendiaries love playing with fire.

The simple answer is that Congress won’t let the government be run like a business.

That is, unless the business in question is Theranos under the fraudulent leadership of Elizabeth Holmes or Sam Bankman-Fried’s bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange, FTX.

How long would any functioning business in America tolerate the antics of a regional manager who behaved like Tommy Tuberville?

The Alabama Republican senator and former college football head coach has placed a hold on nearly 200 top military promotions for reasons ranging from the Pentagon providing abortion services to raging about a “woke” culture in the armed services.

How long would a corporate CFO survive if he or she squandered hundreds of millions of dollars by needlessly engaging in accounting gimmicks?

But that’s the position Congress has put the Treasury in by forcing the government to resort to what it calls “extraordinary measures” that allow the agency to delay breaching the debt ceiling.

While official figures are not yet available, my New Republic colleague Tim Noah estimates the government has already wasted $328 million as it teeters on the brink of default.

If you’re keeping score at home, the debt-ceiling antics of the House Republicans have already cost every American — including infants — a dollar. And that’s for no purpose whatsoever other than flexing political power.

You could also easily imagine a shareholder rebellion sacking the entire executive staff, from the CEO on down, if a private company found itself unable to pay its bills because of grievous mismanagement.

Fiscal brinkmanship

If McCarthy leads the nation into default and then, like a cartoon character, manages to clamber back after a few days, the results would still be costly.

Wendy Edelberg and Louise Sheiner from the Brookings Institution forecast that even a brief default would cost the federal government $750 billion in additional risk premium interest costs over the next decade.

I would not be giving away the secrets of the Harvard Business School if I noted that well-run corporations pride themselves on their ability to rationally plan and budget for the future.

But years of congressional fiscal brinkmanship — and, yes, it’s mostly the Republicans again — have left federal agencies lurching from one budget crisis to another.

Beyond the debt ceiling, every government shutdown has been disastrous for orderly management and the morale of the federal workforce.

Any deal to avert a default may involve some form of spending caps on domestic agencies. These arbitrary numbers, especially at a time of relatively high inflation, will once again hamstring effective administration and planning.

A suggestion: Every time you hear a Republican politician talking about spending caps, imagine a blowhard CEO prattling on about “right-sizing our workforce” and “doing more with less.”

Corporate leaders revere those parts of the business that bring in revenue. Only in the government is the bill-paying side of the enterprise routinely reviled.

How else to explain the long, self-defeating history of Congress starving the IRS of funds, equipment and staff? A decade of budget cuts left the IRS unable to answer its phones or respond promptly to mail from taxpayers.

Foolish austerity

When President Joe Biden talked about hiring 87,000 new employees at the IRS, Republicans immediately made the proposal seem like the equivalent of confiscatory taxation. Lost in the rhetorical excess was the truth that the bulk of the new employees would be processing information and answering taxpayers’ phone calls and questions.

No Fortune 500 company would ever stint on technology for its revenue-producing arm.

But that is what Congress has also done to the IRS by all but forcing agents to use an abacus for their calculations. Decades of under-funding has been disastrous for accuracy and tax compliance. In 2018, due to creaky technology, more than 10 percent of the returns flagged for close scrutiny were, in truth, error-free.

A rational business also would not skimp on inexpensive solutions to lessen grievous problems. But at a time of near-crisis on the Mexican border, The New York Times reports that lengthy backlogs in processing asylum requests have been partly caused by a shortage of immigration judges. Republicans in Congress with foolish austerity and a hostility to the legal asylum requests have made matters worse as they demagogue another issue.

Alas, much of this dysfunction is built into the way Congress operates at a time of intense polarization. So only a Pollyanna would expect congressional Republicans to come to their senses.

But the next time anyone talks about running the government like a business, you are more than entitled to laugh uproariously.

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