The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern

Our nation survived the Great Depression and it has survived the more recent Great Recession.  The question now is whether it will survive the Great Dysfunction.

While the focus of many pundits and politicians is now on Congress’ inability to pass a budget, resulting in one Continuing Resolution after another, invention of new phrases such as the Fiscal Cliff, and the current sequestration scare, a closer examination reveals that Congress has recently been unable to pass other basic legislation that is long past due.

In my own field of Education Advocacy, the most glaring example of the Great Dysfunction is the failure of Congress to reauthorize or amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 under President George W. Bush.  While the basic goal of having no child fall behind in school was laudable, the law was deeply flawed in many ways, including:

  • failure to provide children who were left behind with any individual remedies;
  • utilizing blunt punishments against individual schools and whole school districts whose students were not doing well on certain performance measures, without providing the necessary support to remedy those failures; and
  • over-realiance on deeply flawed standardized tests to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing to educate children.

NCLB required that 100% of all school children be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, with dire consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet that standard.  While that sounded nice to politicians in 2001, as 2014 loomed closer, it became exceedingly obvious that such a standard was simply impossible to meet.

NCLB was set up to be reauthorized with probable changes in 2007, with the understanding that this law was experimental and would need adjustments.  Indeed, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked side by side with President Bush to try to accomplish that goal prior to both of their departures from office, but due to the Great Dysfunction, they failed to achieve passage.

President Obama took up the mantle by renaming NCLB by its old name, the ESEA, and proposed sweeping changes in 2010.  In fact, the Senate Education Committee passed bi-partisan revisions in 2011.  But, once again, the Great Dysfunction took over and the bill did not pass.

Given the looming disastrous 2014 deadline, and the overriding power of the Great Dysfunction, the Obama Administration began to implement state by state waivers of the ESEA in 2012.  As of right now, 44 states along with Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have requested waivers.  The Dept. of Education has granted 34 states and the District of Columbia’s waiver requests.

Thus, the result of the Great Dysfunction in our schools is that the largest federal funding stream for our nation’s public schools is now implemented in at least 36 different ways through 35 different waivers and the remaining states continuing to operate under the now universally reviled NCLB.  While some members of Congress have chastised this overreach of Executive authority, there has simply been no progress to pass a revised ESEA.

A more detailed history of this debacle is available from the NY Times.

The question is, what will it take to emerge from the Great Dysfunction?  While many may say that we get the democracy we serve, Benjamin Disraeli put it well when he declared that,

The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

What we so desperately need are for our politicians to turn into statesmen, who recognize that the Great Dysfunction serves no one.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

One Step Back from the Fiscal Cliff

As Democrats and Republicans jockey for political position on the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations, I can’t help but wonder how many of our elected representatives truly care about moving the American economy and the federal budget forward in a sensible manner, and how many others are just measuring the political outcome of whatever deal is made vs. falling off the figurative fiscal cliff.  From my vantage point, most members of Congress are simply calculating political outcomes rather than examining what is truly best for the vast majority of Americans going forward.

One example of how politics seems to override common sense is the debate over whether the age for Medicare eligibility should be raised.  One thing I have learned in conducting effective systems change advocacy for over 27 years is that partisan rancor rarely gets resolved by creating sound policy.  Building consensus amongst those who differ has a much better chance of creating sound fiscal and social policy. Indeed, I started my career doing elder advocacy, including writing a popular handbook, Your REAL Medicare Handbook.

As of the moment, some Republicans have suggested that one way to secure Medicare’s viability in the future is to raise the eligibility age to 67.  Most Democrats have viewed such suggestions as an attack on the social contract of Medicare.

As a strict non-partisan working on effective Systems Change, I invite readers to look at the facts:

  • When Medicare was established by the Social Security Amendments of 1965, men’s life expectancy was approximately 67 years and women’s life expectancy was approximately 73 years.
  • Current estimated life expectancy for men is about 76 years for men, and 81 years for women.
  • In 2011, the oldest baby boomers—Americans born between 1946 and 1964 started turn 65. Today, over 40 million people in the United States are ages 65 and older, but this number is projected to more than double to 89 million by 2050. Although the “oldest old”—those ages 85 and older—represent somewhat over 15 percent of the population ages 65 and older today, their numbers are projected to rise rapidly over the next 40 years. By 2050, the oldest old will number 19 million, over one-fifth of the total population ages 65 and older.
  • By 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that there will be almost 50 million persons over 65 and not in the labor force—about twice the number in 1995.
  • The US Labor Force grew rapidly from the 1950s through the 1970s and has steadily declined since then.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not anticipate a rise in the US Labor force until the 2030s and then only returning to the levels of 2010.

So, even without discussing the problem of controlling health care inflation, it is clear that a shrinking workforce cannot continue to support  the booming Medicare population through Medicare payroll taxes.   It is worth noting that Congress resolved this problem for Social Security by slowly raising the retirement age.  There simply is no sound reason not to duplicate this gradual rise in the Social Security retirement age, in the Medicare eligibility age.  This will avoid any retirees suddenly having retirement and anticipated Medicare coverage change without reasonable time to plan.  I suggest raising the age to 67 over 4 years (i.e., 6 months/year).  Other time tables could certainly be adopted.

While this may appear to be a Republican idea, Democrats can brag that raising the Medicare eligibility age is made possible by Obamacare as those caught in the rising age group will have health insurance available to them under the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, it is worth noting that way back in 1999, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare concurred with this recommendation, calling for linking the Social Security retirement age with the Medicare eligibility age. Sadly, politics has gotten in the way of sound policy ever since.  It is time for brave politicians to figure out how to declare a win-win for the American people and stop playing win-lose politics with our future.


For more information e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.