Even in this era of hyper-partisanship, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can agree on one thing: government in the United States is broken. Evidence of political dysfunction abounds. Every night on the news, we see partisan squabbling and empty posturing.

More alarming, though, is the fact that our government too often fails to take effective action on issues of critical importance to America’s future. On a whole host of issues—from climate change to a mystifying tax code that runs into the thousands of pages—the government routinely ignores plain warnings of impending danger, mismanagement, corruption, and waste. Even on issues of everyday governance, like passing a budget, paying its debt obligations, and respecting deficit restrictions, government does not so much govern as it lurches from crisis to crisis. 

Meanwhile, when it does manage to build the supermajorities needed to pass laws, the government tends to produce policies that are internally inconsistent and ineffective. And when these programs and policies are shown to have fixable flaws, the flaws too often don’t get fixed. Based on the assembled evidence, it is not at all clear that our government is up to the task of solving the problems of a modern, complex society.

In response to all of this dysfunction, political observers have offered any number of reforms. Term limits, lobbying restrictions, electoral reforms, institutional reorganizations, and much more have all been presented as salves to contemporary dissatisfaction. Each may have some promise. But if reforms are to be successful, they must be based on a clear understanding of what is actually wrong. For only when it is understood why a system is performing poorly can we know with confidence what changes will be most productive.

Given the stakes, public policy schools need to become the center of responsible discussions about political reform. They must investigate the sources of government dysfunction, evaluate the merits of existing reform proposals, and craft new proposals based on data, research and scholarship. 

Harris Public Policy, with an abundance of strengths in this area, is in position to lead such an initiative – and that’s why we created The Project on Political Reform.

Non-partisan in orientation, the Project on Political Reform investigates the sources of government dysfunction and identifies pragmatic solutions. PPR’s focus includes topics such as legislative decision-making, lobbying, political accountability, campaign laws and practices, structural incentives influencing candidate and office-holder behavior, and the relationships between governing institutions. PPR focuses primarily on local, state and federal government in the United States but, at times, may also address governmental dysfunction in other western democracies.