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It’s Not the Size, It’s What You Do With It

March 1st, 2010 at 7:02 pm David Frum | 29 Comments |

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There’s been a lot of criticism of my column at CNN.com about the breakdown of Congress since 1980.

I’ll deal shortly with criticisms from Bruce Bartlett, Matt Yglesias, and Kevin Drum.

Let me deal first with a criticism from the right-hand side of the blogosphere, epitomized by this from Erick Erickson of RedState:

Maybe, just maybe there is a different reason Congress has done little since the seventies. Maybe, just maybe it could be because conservatives largely took over in the 80’s through Republican controlled White Houses or Congresses and conservatives tend to think we don’t need sweeping legislation to solve all the ills of the American people.

Isn’t this the quintessential vanity piece of liberal drivel? Those elites back in the 50s to the 70s could get great things done because they didn’t have to interact with the people. But once they were forced to interact with those C-SPAN cameras, they couldn’t solve all the problems the American people never knew they had.

If it were possible for two paragraphs to sum up everything that is wrong with the American conservative movement, these are them.

The total indifference to policy and governance – the glib equation of ideological activists with “the people” – the assumption that conservatives just needed to “take over” and then all problems would spontaneously disappear  ….  it’s all on display.

The suggestion that conservatives don’t need to legislate – or anyway don’t need to legislate anything much – is ignorant of history, ignorant of policy, ignorant of government.

To their critics, the deregulation of oil and gas in the 1970s was “sweeping.” Ditto the deregulation of air, trucking and rail. Ditto the Reagan tax cuts. Ditto welfare reform.

The problems ahead for conservatives will require even bigger action still.

Do you want to balance the budget? You can’t do it without curbing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid, and that will take major reforms in both programs.

How about a shift from unskilled to more skilled immigration? Not a small project.

Concerned to protect the environment while enhancing U.S. energy security? That too will require legislation that some would call sweeping.

On the other hand:

If for you “limited government” is a slogan rather than a political project -

If you are less eager to fix problems than to complain about them -

If you see politics not as a search for agreed solutions, but as a theater for cultural clash:

Then who cares whether Congress functions well or not? Your politics is about electioneering, not governance – about grievance, not responsibility.

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29 Comments so far ↓

  • sinz54

    I’m going to stick with my own theory:

    The Federal Government’s past track record of failures suggests that it ought to shrink, just like any failing private business. And it also suggests that the Government ought not to be trusted to engage in ANY more initiatives that expand its reach, influence, power, or wealth, until its track record on doing its existing repertoire of things improves.

    When a private business starts to fail, the managers close or sell off unprofitable divisions. (GM just did this with its Hummer division.)

    So pragmatically, let’s keep those parts of the government that work (the military, the National Institutes of Health, etc.)–and get rid of those parts of the government that don’t work well (the Department of Education, the Department of Energy). Now within those parts, there are isolated functions that do work well. Those can be folded into other agencies.

    None of that means that the GOP can’t also come up with plans on reforming existing agencies that aren’t headed for the chopping block. Paul Ryan has plans to reform Medicare, for example.

    But it does mean that it’s time the liberals put up or shut up: If they want “activist affirmative government,” then they have to first show us that they can make government work better even for the tasks it already has. Otherwise, it’s just throwing good money after bad.

  • DavidWelker

    sinz54,

    Really? You think the federal government is just like a private business? So, if the federal government fails, that is just about as bad as a small business failing? The consequences are exactly on the same level, right? Bad analogy.

    Finally, the Department of Energy is a failure? Last time I checked, our nuclear weapon stockpile was extremely safte, despite the obvious motivations of our enemies.

    Oh wait, you didn’t realize that the Department of Energy was so devoted to protecting our nuclear weapon stockpiles, did you? Of course not. But thanks for providing your opinion anyway, even though it is based on ignorance. No informed observer would say the Department of Energy does not work well overall, when one considers its mission.

    So, you say that liberals have to prove that government works well. Well, at least you concede that governance is a liberal and not conservative responsibility. So, basically, people with your philosophy should have no part of it. Now, if only people with your philosophy would stop running for political office where you can put your philosophy of irresponsibility for the actions of the government your trying to take control of into effect.

    But, I do have a couple of questions:

    How exactly are liberals supposed to fix anything when your side obstructs everything? How do you prove something works well to those who form their opinions without facts?

    As a liberal, I have to respect David Frum. He may have a different political philosophy, but at least he is responsible.

  • ltoro1

    Well David, it may not be appropriate to compare the federal government to a private business, but any organization needs to decide what its core compentencies are and focus on those things. Considering that the Department of Energy did not exist until 1977, I don’t think they are the only Department that can take care of our nukes.

    Personally, I will concede that the Department of Energy is doing its job the day they nuke the Department of Health and Human Services.

  • DavidWelker

    but any organization needs to decide what its core compentencies are and focus on those things

    Sounds very reasonable to me. So, I take it on the basis of this principle, you are in favor of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency which will consolidate the consumer protection missions of numerous other federal agencies into an agency whose primary mission is consumer protection. For example, based on this principle, we would say that the core responsibility of the Federal Reserve is monetary policy and thus it makes more sense for them to focus on their core mission instead of consumer protection, where they have done a lousy job.

    You have convinced me of the utility of this principle, at least in this context. Now go convince enough Republicans so that this proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency can survive a filibuster.

    Oh wait, I don’t think that was your actual point, was it? You probably suddenly want to back away from this “principle” that you asserted we should follow when it leads to results you do not like. And, even before we make decisions like this, don’t we actually have to know something about, you know, the actual facts of the situation? Or are generalizations (however reasonable) enough?

    Considering that the Department of Energy did not exist until 1977, I don’t think they are the only Department that can take care of our nukes.

    Last time I checked, whether it is possible to reshuffle the responsibilities that are undertaken by a particular agency to another agency (something that is always true by definition) is a separate issue from whether or not a particular agency is performing well overall and performing well in particular areas (something that involves an assessment of actual facts).

    Now, do you have any actual intelligent and fact-based opinions about the missions the Department of Energy should undertake or how it is performing its current functions? If, so I would love to hear them.

    Personally, I will concede that the Department of Energy is doing its job the day they nuke the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Why should I care what you concede? Are fact free and uninformed opinions supposed to be somehow equal to opinions reached after careful analysis undertaken with an awareness of the facts? Actually understanding something takes a lot of effort. Slogans are no substitute.

    So you think the burden is on me to persuade you? That I should care what you are or are not willing to concede something or other? I don’t think so. The burden is on you to prove that your opinion is even worth considering. Then, we can discuss whether I should care whether you are willing to concede something or not.

    These are serious issues. They deserve more than jokes which presuppose actual knowledge is unimportant or put uninformed opinions on the same level as informed opinions.

    I am sorry if I don’t appreciate your humor or your attempts to lighten things up. But these strike me as serious issues. David Frum is asking a very important question. Are Republicans serious about governing? About taking responsibility? I am not a Republican (although I used to be a Republican) but I still would like to see the Republican party become more than a party of empty slogans and opinions that assumes that answers to complicated issues of public policy always have simple answers. Because, whether I like it or not, the character of the Republican party can and will affect policy in America, for good or ill. I want it to have an effect for good, but that will require moving beyond slogans. The same is true regarding the character of the Democratic party. Passionate competition between the political parties is perfectly healthy, but it is important that it be channeled productively and responsibly.

    Since the election of Reagan, the Republican Party has held the Presidency for 20 years. compared to less than 10 years for Democratic Party. During that time, they have also controlled Congress on more than one occasion, including a stretch of time during the second Bush administration where their policies (along with my own personal philosophical changes) turned me from a Republican into a Democrat. Yet, conservatives do not share responsibility for whether or not the Federal government is effective or dysfunctional? Really?? If that is the attitude, Republicans don’t deserve to govern.

    With power comes responsibility.

  • msmilack

    Excellent article, Mr. Frum. You set forth a challenge for elected officials to do the right thing, which is to govern instead of complain: I only wish they would meet your challenge with the right action.

  • sinz54

    DavidWelker: Oh wait, you didn’t realize that the Department of Energy was so devoted to protecting our nuclear weapon stockpiles, did you?

    Maybe YOU forget that I was born in the 1950s, back when we had a well-managed and growing nuclear stockpile but no Energy Department. Even when I was a teenager, we had nuclear weapons but no Energy Department.

    Are YOU well aware that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) used to manage nuclear weapon technology for 30 years, until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was established. Then THAT got folded into the Energy Research and Development Agency (ERDA). And then finally ERDA got folded into the Department of Energy–in 1977, that’s 32 years after America successfully developed its first nuclear weapon.

    So the next time you insinuate that I don’t know the history of nuclear weapons development in the U.S., I strongly suggest that YOU first know what you’re talking about!

  • mike farmer

    There’s a big difference between legislation designed to bolster social engineering and central planning and legislation designed to deconstruct social engineering and central planning and to strengthen the private sector and free market.

  • sinz54

    DavidWelker: So, I take it on the basis of this principle, you are in favor of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency which will consolidate the consumer protection missions of numerous other federal agencies into an agency whose primary mission is consumer protection.
    I’m not.

    “Consolidation” of existing agencies into a new big agency, without a careful review to see which of those existing agencies should even exist anymore or how they will play together, has been disastrous.

    Using YOUR “consolidation” strategy, we folded FEMA into the new Department of Homeland Security. FEMA’s traditional and successful mission of dealing with natural disasters now took a back seat to homeland security against terrorists. That is one reason why FEMA proved so incompetent to deal with Hurricane Katrina.

    The Energy Department has accomplished very little that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t. We had nuclear weapons for 30 years–successfully–without a Cabinet-level Energy Department. And if, as Obama claims, there’s this great big private market for solar and wind power, then we should abolish the Energy Department and let the private market prove that alternative energy can work.

    Instead of consolidating existing agencies, let’s go through them with a green eyeshade and phase out those that are not accomplishing their mission anymore. Then we may just need to consolidate two or three, instead of 10 or 20.

    We don’t need a Department of Homeland Security. We don’t need a Department of Energy. And we don’t need a Department of Education. Somehow, America won two world wars and became the world’s greatest superpower without any of those.

  • GOProud

    DavidW, I’d like to add a suggestion to the list other commenters have offered to you after your nonsensical reduction of Sinz54′s points in your #2 comment.

    Get a nap. You’re clearly over-wrought and not writing coherently… better yet, get a nap and clue. Both would help.

  • DFL

    Congress worked rather well in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan passed large tax cuts and spending cuts in 1981 with bipartisan support. Some of those taxes, most not part of the original Reagan program, were raised in 1982 with bipartisan support. Much of the Reagan defense buildup was accomplished by bipartisan coalitions with Democrats like Jackson, Murtha, Dicks and Gore doing some of the heavy lifting. The Greenspan Commission of 1983 was accomplished by both parties coming together with the Republicans agreeing to a Social Security tax increase while the Democrats acceding to a raise in retirement ages. The great tax reform of 1986 coalesced the efforts of Reagan, liberal Democrat Bill Bradley, machine Democrat Dan Rostenkowski and moderate Democrat Richard Gephardt.

  • GOProud

    By the way FF editors> doesn’t using the phallic Washington Monument imply that size DOES matter? Just saying…

  • Brutus1776

    Well, the Washington Monument and the title of the piece sure are… interesting.

    Almost as interesting as watching Sinz54 demolish DavidWelker. I don’t know what warranted Mr. Welker’s malicious and condescending assault on Sinz54, but Sinz’s reposte was spot on. Bravo! (Brava?)

    Both Frum’s original article and his back-and-forth is great for those of us who were not able to watch these actual changes occur. The title about the “smoke filled back room dealings” makes me think of the old flick “Advise and Consent” with Henry Fonda…

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  • Carney

    Frum makes a substantive point here, but FrumForum’s editor (if it is not Frum himself) does him a disservice with the headline and photo. Setting aside the appropriateness of the double-entendre, they imply that Frum is what some have accused George W. Bush of being – a “big government conservative” content with large and expanding government as long as it is pressed into service for conservative ends.

    But that isn’t and wasn’t Frum’s point here. Indeed, Frum was arguing that a functioning legislative majority that passes major bills is needed in order to ROLL BACK and shrink government.

  • GOProud

    Brutus1776 observes: “Well, the Washington Monument and the title of the piece sure are… interesting. Almost as interesting as watching Sinz54 demolish DavidWelker. I don’t know what warranted Mr. Welker’s malicious and condescending assault on Sinz54, but Sinz’s reposte was spot on. Bravo! (Brava?)”

    Let’s keep Sinz54 humble; DavidW isn’t exactly a tough act to demolish.

  • DavidWelker

    sinz54,

    Is the Department of Energy in charge of our nuclear stockpile now?

    Answer: Yes.

    Has it done a good job in protecting that stockpile?

    Answer Yes.

    Yet, for some reason, Sinz54 says the Department of Energy is one of those agencies that “don’t work well.”

    So, is sinz54 an ignoramus when he asserts the Department of Energy doesn’t work well when it has been quite successful in the most important mission given to to it?

    Answer: Yes

    And finally, yes, the mission of looking after the nuclear weapons stockpile could be in a different agency. That is true be definition. You take any function of government performed by a particular agency, and of course you could transfer it elsewhere.

    But the mission is currently in the hands of the Department of Energy and they have done an excellent job.

    The bottom-line is this. Your opinion that the Department of Energy doesn’t work very well is of no value. Further, this strongly suggests that many of your other opinions are of little value, since you probably don’t care enough to actually educate yourself concerning actual facts before making strong assertions.

  • DavidWelker

    GOPProud and Brutus1776,

    I am sure you are right. My point has been demolished.

    The idea that opinions are much more valuable when informed by actual facts has been demolished, crushed, and destroyed. Of course, the fact that the Department of Energy has been enormously successful in the most important mission given to it is irrelevant to the merits of the opinion that the agency is one of those that “don’t work very well.” After all, there is the irrelevant fact that at one time, the Department of Energy did not have responsibility for the nuclear stockpile, given that it did not even exist.

    Consider the following two arguments:
    (1)
    Facts:
    Jack Welch was not CEO of General Electric before 1981.

    Conclusion:
    Since Jack Welch was not CEO before 1981, he deserves no credit for the success of GE during the time he was CEO.

    (2)
    Facts:
    The Department of Energy was not in charge of our nuclear stockpile before it even came into existence in 1977.

    Conclusion:
    Since the Department of Energy was not in charge of protecting our nuclear stockpile before 1977, it deserves no credit for its success in protecting that stockpile during the time it was in charge.

    What do the preceding two arguments have in common?

    Answer: They make absolutely no sense.

    But apparently “making sense” does not matter around here. Another win for your side! Congratulations.

    And to show you how much I appreciate your victory, I simply will not waste my time commenting on this site again. I am tired of wasting my time arguing with the ignorant for whom facts do not actually matter. It is too bad. I was hoping the FrumForum might actually be different.

    Enjoy the echo chamber.

  • GOProud

    DavidW, again, after #18, the suggestion you take a nap and get a clue would be useful. You’re suffering from Palin Disengagement Syndrome… maybe you need a Palin sighting to restore your special moonbattery left wing sense of place? It helps the Obami usually.

  • DavidWelker

    GOProud,

    Did I mention Sarah Palin? No. Do I care about her? No. She is obviously the very definition of someone who is very ignorant but nonetheless has strong opinions. I think McCain should have chosen someone who was actually qualified to be President as his running mate, like Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. But the Presidential campaign is over, and so is the relevance of Sarah Palin.

    Its nice that you are such a mind reader though.

    I understand that you think I don’t have a clue. Don’t worry. As I said, I will not bother you with what you view as my clueless comments here in the future. I am not interested in wasting my time. In fact, I don’t even know why I bothered responding to your non-fact based and nonsensical inference regarding Palin here. There is just something about false and fact-free assertions that bothers me, I suppose. But I would appreciate it if you would refrain from making further fact-free inferences regarding what does or does not bother me. Please.

    Thank you very much.

  • ltoro1

    Well, I don’t mind that my sense of humor is not universally appreciated, but wow. I still stand by my overall point. No, I don’t think we need a Consumer Financial Protection Agency at all. I have been able to manage my financial affairs without it.

  • DavidWelker

    ltoro1,

    I am sorry if you felt my comments were primarily directed to your attempt at humor. I am just frustrated with the way that our governance has become so dysfunctional, especially since I see so much hypocrisy in the Republicans and their supposed respect for the Constitution even while they blatantly ignore the most important provisions of the document, which are not in the Bill of Rights, but instead when it comes to establishing the basic framework of government. In particular, the Senate was designed to operate based on majority rule, but both Republicans and Democrats think they know better. As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist 75 when discussing the powers of the Senate:

    It has been shewn under the second head of our inquiries that all provisions which require more than the majority of any body to its resolutions have a direct tendency to embarrass the operations of the government and an indirect one to subject the sense of the majority to that of the minority.

    Anyway, in case your inclined to argue about this, I am not interested in doing so right now. I am just explaining why I feel the way I do. I am frustrated by our dysfunctional government, not your sense of humor.

    Having a sense of humor is a good thing. And not everyone gets my sense of humor either. So, I am sorry if you felt that my response was directed towards you personally.

    I have been persuaded not to comment here in the future, but certainly not because of your sense of humor.

  • msmilack

    Along the same lines (i.e. the frustrations from the way the party currently fails to govern), another Republican bites the dust. Read:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-smerconish/for-me-the-party-is-over_b_470793.html

  • joedee1969

    I don’t know why anyone listens to any of them anymore:

    http://americaspeaksink.com/2010/03/we-need-political-abortions/

  • GOProud

    DavidW whittles away and whines a while:

    “As I said, I will not bother you with what you view as my clueless comments here in the future. I am not interested in wasting my time. In fact, I don’t even know why I bothered responding to your non-fact based and nonsensical inference regarding Palin here. There is just something about false and fact-free assertions that bothers me, I suppose. But I would appreciate it if you would refrain from making further fact-free inferences regarding what does or does not bother me. Please.”

    No DavidW, we’ve all heard that very promise or pledge from lots of trolls here on FF. Last month it was AnnieGetYourGun and she reneged or flipflopped like a good little Obami.

    Proof is in the silence. We’ll see.

  • sinz54

    DavidWelker:

    I’m going to repeat my point one more time for you,
    so you can understand it:

    The Department of Energy oversees a vast empire of regulation of ALL of America’s energy production and distribution.

    Managing the nuclear weapons stockpile is a small part of that.

    The fact that the DoE manages the nuclear weapons stockpile well is irrelevant, since it was always managed well no matter which agency was in charge of it. (At least three other agencies had been in charge of it before the DoE was created.)

    We don’t need a DoE to manage America’s energy mix. Let the free market take care of it. If solar and wind power can succeed without hamstringing every other type of energy by regulations and bureaucracy, then I’ll be all for it.

    Here’s a clue: What percentage of the DoE’s budget goes for managing the nuclear weapons stockpile? And where does the REST of the money go?

  • sinz54

    DavidWelker: I am just frustrated with the way that our governance has become so dysfunctional,
    You should talk.

    One reason our politics has become so dysfunctional is because of leftists like YOU.
    Yes, YOU.

    Starting in the 1960s, I watched how you leftists dirtied and ruined America’s public discourse, by making boorishness, rowdiness, personal attacks, and sheer obscenity, into political tools. Speakers at public meetings were heckled off the stage or had pies or rotten fruit thrown at them, destroying their right to speak and their audience to listen. Filth and obscenity, repeated loudly and often enough, replaced real debate. Obscene “discussions” about the personal habits of LBJ’s daughters became a replacement for real debate about the way forward in the Vietnam War. Contempt and hatred replaced sincere disagreement.

    And you leftists DID IT. It was deliberate. And calculated.

    I have tried to have a civil discussion with you.
    I have NEVER attacked you personally.

    Yet from you, and from your left-wing predecessors who fled FrumForum after Scott Brown won, I have endured a steady stream of personal insults, put-downs, and personal insinuations.

    Somewhere along the line,
    you incorporated the left-wing mindset that anyone who isn’t a leftist is contemptible and must be treated as such.

    You don’t know me and I don’t know you.
    The Internet lets us hide behind our anonymity.
    But you leftists keep abusing that privilege.
    Just like you keep abusing the privilege of living in America.

    And that should be fixed someday.

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