April 27, 2001

April 27, 2001 | Commentary on Political Thought

Our CEO in Chief

It's going to take more than the fabled "100 days" to answer what may be the central question of the Bush presidency: Can the federal government be run like a business?

The president's trying. He brings to the Oval Office something no other occupant has brought -- an MBA (from Harvard, no less). And it shows. During his first 100 days in office, he has essentially transformed himself into America's CEO In Chief.

In Bush's White House, meetings start promptly and end on time -- a change from the freewheeling "Clinton Standard Time" days of his predecessor. The Defense Department and other agencies are being reviewed for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. A dress code for White House staffers has returned.

Even Bush's first federal budget reflects his management style: "What matters in the end is performance," Mitch Daniels, Bush's budget czar, recently said. "Not just making promises, but making good on promises."

But a results-oriented way of life is alien to Washington, which is a bizarre place to begin with. (You can read advertisements for the latest fighter jet on the subway, for example.) The federal government approach to managing thousands of programs is the direct opposite of what you'll find in the business world.

In business, successful companies check the quality of their products constantly, and quickly stop or revamp those that lose money or fail to attract customers. In Washington, its programs or "products" are practically untouchable, regardless of whether they work. President Bush wants to do nothing less than change Washington thinking to mirror that of businesses -- a goal that makes "bipartisanship" look easy.

Good luck, Mr. President. Washington is notoriously resistant to reforms that hold policy-makers responsible for the programs they create. On Capitol Hill, "making good on promises" often means working to satisfy the demands of special interests for federal programs, whether they're meeting their goals or not.

Take education reform. Bush asked Congress in the first 100 days to change federal education programs so that funding goes only to those that improve the academic achievement of students. Under his plan, federal education dollars would no longer pay for unproven and wasteful education fads.

Instead, Bush wants school systems to follow private-sector practices, such as imposing fines or other forms of accountability on failing systems. He also wants to give poor families the business equivalent of a full refund by giving them the choice to remove their children from failed schools. And he wants to use regular testing to measure progress.

Unfortunately, the White House has watched in horror as the Capitol Hill chainsaw dismembered the budget provisions designed to bring accountability to -- and wring achievement from -- low-performing public school systems. It took far fewer than 100 days for Bush to learn that too many members of Congress measure policy success, not in terms of measurable outcomes such as whether more children learn to read, but rather in terms of whether they satisfy the education lobby's insatiable demand for more money.

It's particularly ironic that some of those wielding the chainsaw are Bush's fellow Republicans who are ignoring recent polling data -- from Republican and Democratic pollsters alike -- that indicate Americans now favor Republicans over Democrats as the party best able to improve education. This is a historic turnaround, and it suggests that voters like Bush's message and his willingness to place reasonable demands on the education bureaucracy.

One hopes that Bush not only preserves his education reform plan, but uses it as a model to rewrite federal policies in other areas, including housing, drug treatment, job training and environmental cleanup.

Changing current Washington thinking -- "if it ain't working, keep funding it" -- may be the toughest objective for our CEO In Chief to complete as he moves beyond the first 100 days. Let's hope Harvard taught him well.

Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), is a former communications director for House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Political Thought

Distributed nationally by Bridge News