It is time to revisit what the federal government does for its people in order to create a more effective government.

More than 228 years ago during an 83-day period, our founding fathers created the Constitution. Based on a basic blueprint developed by James Madison, they discussed, argued, debated, convinced and compromised resulting in the Constitution of the United States – a document that has stood the test of time and is appropriately invoked in politics, debates, and legal, legislative and executive actions.

According to the Constitution, the purpose of government is to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. This includes the ability to make and interpret laws, levy taxes, coin and borrow money, regulate commerce, create rules for naturalization of its citizens, promote science and the arts, create and maintain a military, declare war, make rules and regulations, and enter into treaties. It secures freedoms for the American people including free speech, religious freedom, protection from search and seizure, due process, and freedom from slavery or servitude.

Why this brief history lesson – I believe we all need the occasional reminder of our country’s strategic framework so we can evolve and ensure that our government serves its people and functions effectively. The focus of this article then is on the phrase “. . . promote the general welfare.” What does this mean exactly? What is the intent? What is included? Where are the limits?

To start, we can usually all agree on establishing a democratic governmental structure including separation of powers, defending our country, supporting veterans, having a strong judicial system, and ensuring protections for our people.

Does it also include clean air and water? Park systems? Emergency management? Individual, farming or housing subsidies? Infrastructure development? Drug and alcohol support programs? Regulating education? Healthcare? Catfish inspection? Propping up a weak economy? International relief programs? Medical research? And many other things?

I am not advocating for any particular program or its elimination. The reason I raise this issue is that we are financially broke, and it’s getting worse.

As Congress gets ready to vote on the debt ceiling once again, I am calling for a review of what our government does and what the American people want.

What we really need is a systematic look at what government does for its people, through all programs across all agencies. The time has come for a necessary surgical review, not sequestration-like cuts. We will always find advocates and dissenters for every program – this is not the point. Each program should be reviewed and acted upon based upon the following five questions:

  • Is this program an appropriate function of the federal government? If not, who should do it?
  • Is this program necessary to promote the welfare of the American people as a whole? If so, who should do it?
  • Is the program achieving its intended purpose?
  • Is this program affordable as it currently exists? Is the cost consistent with its benefit?
  • Which programs take priority over others with a limited budget?

While appearing simple, these are hard questions that would require much debate and difficult dialogue; a significant undertaking, but the fact that it is difficult should not be a reason to not do it. Even programs with good intentions don’t always realize the desired outcome in the real world and must be changed or eliminated. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good, sometimes there are unintended consequences, sometimes the design is flawed, and sometimes it is just an idea whose time has come and gone.

As Peter Schuck wrote in his book Why Government Fails So Often, “Americans are raising the most fundamental questions about the state: what are its essential functions, which of those must be performed by politically accountable agents, and which can be performed better by non-governmental institutions?” I would say which must be performed by government, which can better be performed by government, and which should be left to others (states, municipalities, community, family, or the individual).

After more than 200 years, it is time to revisit the purpose of our government. Perhaps other things will come out of it such as the beginning stages of a tax overhaul, or better service to the American people. Corporate America does this on a regular basis. They review their product and service portfolio, and decide which to continue, which to terminate, which to sell off to others, and which new ones to develop or acquire. Our federal government could learn some lessons here. It’s time for a collaborative review by the executive branch, legislative branch, states, and other representatives of the American people.

Within this process the issues of duplication, fragmentation, overlap, and waste can be addressed along with the structural alignment of agencies. Each agency (new or old) would receive a clear and new charter through a reauthorization process, and the president should have some reorganization authority to get it done. It should also involve creating new accountabilities, efficiencies, and economies.

Many polls demonstrate that the American people, social scientists, and other experts, believe our government is bloated, ineffective, costly and clumsy. We need to bring legitimacy back to it in a big way by clearly defining what it does, then figuring out how best to do it. No partisanship, only practicality, and a commitment to our lasting principles: the Constitution.

View the Original Version of the Article at