Thursday, March 26, 2009

World War

General Robert Kehler, head of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, is one of the brightest and most engaging of our national leaders. Under his command is a unit devoted to cybersecurity, a relatively new mission at the Space Command's headquarters. He tells the airmen in that unit, "When you log on each day, you are entering a battlefield." The fact is that the battlefield they are on is a part of a global war which is fought 24/7 and where the adversary is constantly changing and often difficult to find and define. So the airmen Kehler leads are truly engaged in a world war everyday, a war that does not make headlines, but one that may be definitional of the challenges posed by the new economy and the new technology of the 21st Century.

The challenges of new economic circumstances fueled by new technological advances are the world in which this year's budget battle in Washington is taking place. And what is amazing is how little the proposed public policies tied to the budget proposals really recognize the changed world in which we live.

Much of the present economic crisis stems from the reality of revolutionary change. The American people have a sense of that reality in their own lives which is why the change theme played so powerfully in the 2008 election season. There was a gut instinct reflected that life was being altered substantially, but public policy was not.

As usual, the people were ahead of the politicians in their common sense analysis. Things have changed big time. We are at war that we cannot see. Our 300 year tradition of information flow being anchored by newspapers is struggling. Jobs we thought of as permanent are being eliminated, replaced by new "gold collar" jobs that demand new forms of preparation in new educational settings. Health care is being transformed by technological advances while being strangled in a blizzard of paperwork created by growing bureaucracies. The dream of suburban living is being replaced by regenrefication of our cities. The economy has gone global and with it the ability to make purely national decisions about economic matters. And the list can go on and on. Yet public policy seems oblivious to the stunning nature of the change around us and the comphrensive way in which people's everyday lives are affected.

The case can be and should be made that the worldwide economic crisis is a predictable outcome of the magnitude of the revolutions sweeping the globe. The transformation from an industrial economy to an intellectual economy was going to shake out at some point. A century ago when the agricultural economy was giving way to the industrial economy we experienced a similar catharsis. Social upheaval took place, banks failed, jobs were eliminated and transformed and the end result was the rural based economy replaced by an urban based one. So, too, today we are seeing the opening stages of a similar transformation and the global recession will result in the deadwood of the past being eliminated.

The question is whether the political decisions that get made will recognize the new realities. Politicians are too often behind the curve of transformational change because the chief demands they face come from those who want to be protected from the consequences of the changing landscape. The future has few political advocates while the past and present have long-standing relationships that help them make their case. So Democrats in the midst of a recessionary climate harken back to the New Deal as the model for their solutions. The Republicans cling to the Reagan Revolution as their policy foundation. Yet neither model is really adaptive to the present and coming 21st Century challenges. And thus the budget proposals put forth on Capitol Hill in Washington tend to be a collection of old ideas wrapped in new numbers but with little potential for real change.

What would real change look like? It would emphasize the empowerment of individual citizens who now have the technologically sophisticated means to make their own decisions in their own ways. It would put emphasis on helping people find ways to affirmatively act for the common good in community based programs and policies. It would recognize that government organized to meet the needs of a bureaucratized, industrial economy is disfunctional in a society where individuals often know more than policymakers. It would see the need to assure security of the citizenry from international threats, but also see the security issues as individual (as in privacy matters) and local (as in protection from predators and criminals). It would see the need for fundamental educational reform based on two primary concepts, individualized instruction and lifelong learning. It would make it's major investments in innovation. It would demand integrity from all who seek to lead in every economic and political sector. And, above all, it would recognize that the greatest form of justice is in creating the opportunity for everyone to succeed without trying to use the levers of power to guarantee that success.

General Kehler's airmen have some understanding that the nature of warfare and the battlefields on which the war is fought have changed. The political establishment has talked a lot about change, but has failed to propose solutions that really constitute change. The solutions suggested by everyone have the look of a collection of long sought special interest proposals lacking relevance to the future. We need something better.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Right to Object

In the United States House of Representatives, much of what takes place does not require a vote. That fact may surprise people who believe the House votes on everything imaginable. But in reality much of the work of legislating involves the use of a procedure called unanimous consent.

Unanimous consent requests constitute a considerable part of the congressional activity. They are used for everything from routine procedural matters to passage of legislative proposals. The procedure involves one Member of Congress asking unanimous consent that something be done. "Madam Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that I be permitted to address the House for one minute." Or, "Madam Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that H.R. 1234 be considered as read and approved by the House." And the Speaker's response is, "Without objection, so ordered." Neat. Clean. Very efficient. Unanimous consent is a good way to get things done quickly in what is normally a pretty contentious atmosphere.

But, any other Member of Congress can stop unanimous consent dead in it's tracks. All that Representative has to say is, "I object." The Speaker then says, "Objection is heard" and whatever was being asked is rejected. So, for the most part, unanimous consent requests are only used for matters considered noncontroversial.

But, there is another reaction that a Member can use to ask questions about the proposed action or legislative proposal. He or she can say, "Reserving the right to object" and then begin to ask questions about the request. If satisfied by the responses, the questioner can say, "I withdraw my reservation" and the matter moves forward. Or if unhappy with the response, the questioner can then register the objection stopping the action.

Years ago, I was the designated "floor manager" for the Republican Party when we were in the minority. My job was to be on the Floor of the House and keep track of what the majority Democrats were doing. In those days and very often now, the minority party had and has little say in what transpires on the House Floor and even little knowledge about what is taking place. So often I would use my right to object as a way of seeking information. I got a reputation for detailed parliamentary skills by knowing how to say, "Reserving the right to object." I would then proceed to ask questions about many things, sometimes even including the proposed unanimous consent request.

What I found back then was that reserving the right to object allowed me to debate the important issues of that day. It is in that spirit that I am introducing this blog. So much of what is happening in this nation and around the world deserves serious debate. From time to time we need to ask some questions and get some real answers before proceeding. We are in a complex world dealing with complicated matters. We are in the midst of economic, political, cultural and technological revolutions that will shape this century. Yet our institutions, public and private, seem incapable of understanding the nature of the change around them. And to often they have become such highly sophisticated bureaucracies that they are impervious to the questions being asked by those living with that change. And for that reason, more and more people are unwilling to give those institutions their trust or their consent. They are in many ways reserving the right to object.

Here I hope to give voice to some of the questions and perhaps even suggest that there are some answers. And I will look forward to the debate that ensues.