At the State Capitol this week, a high-profile Republican talked about reforming an important but imperfect government service, rather than complain about it being there.
Lt. Governor Tim Griffin recently completed an extensive review for Gov. Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Human Services, the sprawling state agency that handles human needs such as health care for Arkansans with low incomes or disabilities, paying for nursing home residents, and serving foster children.
Meeting with reporters in his office, Griffin said he found an agency that’s poorly organized into divisions that don’t communicate with each other, leading to waste, inefficiency and less effective services. An Arkansan served by more than one division must talk to each separately, with little help.
Griffin, who previously served four years as Arkansas’ 2nd District congressman, said this kind of organization exists in other agencies. Addressing it in DHS is most critical because it serves what he said are "vulnerable" Arkansans.
The presentation was completely constructive. He offered solutions. He was genuine in wanting better services for DHS clients. He didn’t dismiss the department as another example of hapless government. He didn’t blame anybody.
Griffin’s presentation was not the only example this week of Arkansas Republicans trying to make government work better and smarter, when it would be easier to just criticize it. On Monday, the Republican-dominated Health Reform Legislative Task Force voted to endorse Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works program, which is a continuation of the private option, which was created largely by Republican legislators.
The private option uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for Arkansans with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. It now provides insurance for 200,000 people.
It unquestionably is a government expansion, so many Republicans understandably don’t support it. Republicans who do are trying to make government work at the state level to address problems not being fixed at the federal level or through the private sector. It’s a tough call, and the Legislature may yet choose to end it. However, Louisiana at first said no to the Medicaid money, and now it’s changing its mind.
Republicans have long been more comfortable with government at the state and local levels than at the federal level. State and local governments are closer to the people. In Little Rock, constructive work does get done.
But the party’s rhetoric often doesn’t reflect that, at any level. While it’s the party of less government, it often sounds like it’s the party of no government.
Unfortunately, it’s painting itself in a box. The GOP says it wants to cut or end government programs it can’t cut or end. That means it breaks a lot of promises and disappoints a lot of people. Meanwhile, its base includes a lot of people age 60-plus who depend on government or soon will. So what does the GOP do with that?
So here’s where we are. One party says it wants to cut government unrealistically. The other party too often wants to grow government. What’s not being said enough is that government is sometimes the best bad answer we have, but that it should be smaller and that it should work better. Instead of ending government, or growing it, there should be more talk about reforming it. What Griffin did at DHS should be done everywhere.
In the presidential race, you know who’s sort of filling that niche now? Donald Trump. He doesn’t seem to have a well developed political philosophy, but he’s talking about bringing his supposed business competence to government. He certainly doesn’t talk much about cutting government, aside from repealing Obamacare. He doesn’t want to cut Social Security or Medicare. He wants to build up the military and enact tariffs on Chinese goods. He wants to build a wall along the border funded by Mexico, which can’t afford it, so American taxpayers would pick up the tab.
This election may have been an eye-opener for the GOP. It opposes government, but its voters are nominating a candidate who doesn’t.
Maybe, somewhere in our political discourse, there’s room for responsible candidates to talk knowledgeably about smaller, cheaper, smarter government – reforming it, in other words, because sometimes that’s the best an imperfect society can do.
That’s not pro-government. It’s pro-honesty, and it can happen, even in politics.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.