Guest Columns

SMITH: LOOKING FOR RELIEF FROM DYSFUNCTIONALITY

There are lessons to be learned from Obamacare

The Colorado Statesman

Whether Obamacare sinks or swims, there are some important lessons to be learned here.

First, Management by Walking Around still works. Although this is difficult for a Cabinet Secretary like Kathleen Sebelius to do and much more so for a president, it’s impossible not to sense that they’re disconnected from the actual day-to-day workings of government. Governing is not just giving orders or waiting to be told about things; it’s asking questions, being curious, listening, getting information from a variety of sources.

Second, ideas are important; that’s how legacies are created. But much of government is just managing as well as responding to unforeseen events. That may seem unglamorous to us Democrats who are always pushing new ideas or talking about “change” but, as President Bush found out regarding Katrina, failure to manage can break you.

Third, centralizing power in the White House as President Obama has done isolates you and leaves you at the mercy of advisors who are more interested in the political side than the practical one. (Particularly when you exclude Vice President Joe Biden, one of the very few in the White House who understand real people.) Dick Lamm took a very different approach as Governor of Colorado (1974-88) by attracting experienced, independent men and women to his Cabinet and giving them the opportunity to lead. Because he respected his Cabinet members, he was always open to their opinions and ideas, even when they disagreed with him.

Four, today’s technology is being developed by private sector geniuses, most of whom are very young. The rest of us simply can’t keep up, especially those in large governmental agencies with confusing management systems and leaders who aren’t up to speed. Technology is at the core of everything we do and we’re going to need future leaders who understand it better.

What does this mean for the future? Two thoughts.

First, as Republicans think about 2016, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is going to appear more and more appealing not just because of his recent overwhelming re-election victory in a state where Democrats have 700,000 more voters than Republicans, but because he has actually managed. I think that this is what Americans increasingly want — a leader who can make things work so that the claustrophobic role of government in our lives is diminished.

Second, although the idea of bundling together a series of legislative concepts under the heading of health care or immigration seems appealing and has the potential of creating much more of a “legacy,” these huge bills are always going to be full of confusing compromises and unintended consequences. By its very nature and size, Obamacare is full of those problems but the political environment is so polarized that it’s impossible to do what most state legislatures would do — come back and fix the problems.

Maybe, therefore, it’s time to “think small” and to take a more piecemeal approach when the “big bill” becomes too cumbersome and controversial. As Monte Pascoe, a great public servant once said, “I’m more in favor of small accomplishments than big ideas.” Look, for example, at the critically important issue of immigration reform. Months ago the Senate passed a good bill with some significant but perhaps necessary weaknesses, specifically the commitment to doubling the number of Border Patrol enforcement officials. House Republicans have said that the bill is dead on arrival. Have the subsequent months of intense lobbying changed this dynamic? Or is it time to choose between a debacle that would result in no legislation but a good issue for Democrats to run on or some small but significant steps forward?

For example, Congressmen Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso and Steve Pearce, a Republican from the Las Cruces area of New Mexico are light years apart philosophically but have teamed up to offer legislation to allow immigration officials to use discretion when granting waivers for immigrants who are applying to come to the U.S. to be with family members. Currently many are denied access for very minor issues that occurred in the distant past and both O’Rourke and Pearce think that this is unfair. Although this is only a small part of the total immigration picture, it is an important step forward and shouldn’t be discarded if it becomes clear that a fully comprehensive bill isn’t going to pass. The same is true for concepts like a guest worker program, more high skill visas and the Dream Act.

Although there will always be some media room for ideology like that of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, what Americans want is relief from today’s dysfunctionality. We want a government that works, not one that is always hovering over us like a dark cloud. We want leaders who have the knowledge, commitment and personalities to make things work. Let’s hope that’s not asking for too much.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives and the Cabinet of Governor Dick Lamm. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.