Cantor walked out on the talks only days after former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker and Sen. Mark Warner endorsed action to bring comprehensive government reorganization reform to the negotiating table. Both believe that Congress and the president must act now to address the opportunity for more effective government. And both believe that there are real dollars to save. Indeed, by my own back-of-the-envelope estimates, negotiators could reap $1 trillion or more over the next 10 years by finally taking on the sluggish bureaucracy that hinders high performance.
Volcker has been working this issue for 25 years now, and seems unwilling to throw in the towel. He understands that government needs a drastic overhaul, but not because it has the wrong priorities. As the Center for American Progress's John Podesta said 18 months ago, Americans don't want a smaller government so much as a better government. They want value for their money.
Government cannot faithfully execute the laws without more accountability, efficiency and productivity. As Volcker's said in the past, if Americans want a strong economy, better schools, safer food and drugs, and effective financial regulation, they will need a government that works. That means paying attention to the nuts and bolts of administration.
Warner is the relative newcomer to the cause, but has quickly established himself as the leading congressional advocate for government reform. Building on his reputation as a progressive governor of Virginia and a successful entrepreneur, Warner has already earned recognition as the Senate's expert on the day-to-day operations of government. He has also developed a visible platform for legislative authorship as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee's Task Force on Government Performance.
Warner has stepped into the vacuum created by Sen. Joseph Lieberman's sleepy tenure as chairman of the Senate's once-proud Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Having reformed Virginia’s state bureaucracy, Warner understands the enormous savings embedded in the kind of overhaul Obama promised in this year's State of the Union address. Having called government reform the third leg of the deficit-reduction stool, Warner seems ready to press forward on efforts to cut the number of management layers between the top and bottom of government, eliminating overlap.
Warner also seems ready to embrace a big target for cutting improper payments and improving productivity. Although he represents a sizable contingent of federal employees, he's got more than enough credibility to work with their unions to undertake a nuanced reshaping of the federal workforce that might involve downsizing at the middle and top of the hierarchy.
This is where Volcker comes back into the picture. Warner, his Senate colleague Tom Carper, and other reform-minded members of Congress need outside support, and Volcker is just the one to spark it. After all, he's the last untainted elder statesman standing on financial reform, and was one of the first to tackle the comprehensive reforms needed to make government work.
The question is whether anyone will help Volcker move reform forward in these last desperate weeks of negotiation. The Center for American Progress is certainly well positioned to help, as is the Project on Government Oversight, the Partnership for Public Service, OMB Watch and a half-dozen other groups that have long pushed for pieces of a big-ticket package. But they have yet to coalesce around a broad effort to make the case for better government at lower cost.
It is time for someone in this broad community to answer Volcker's longstanding call for high-performance government. If this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly remake government, someone has to take the first step, make the first phone call and bring the campaign together. Volcker has made the case, Warner is ready to move, but the good-government community seems frozen. It is time for the community to come together to support the kind of reform that will help government succeed. As Volcker has argued, Americans deserve no less.