When our government institutions fail us through incompetence or corruption – the financial collapse being Exhibit A – what is the solution? That’s the question I posed a few weeks ago.
The Tea Partyers increasingly seem to advocate getting rid of government altogether, or at least the federal government. They (and the health insurance industry) are getting a lot of mileage these days by arguing that the Wall Street debacle shows government cannot be trusted to regulate health care. It’s not a crazy argument, but their solution is.
When government fails, the answer is not to get rid of government, but to force it to work better. How?
To start, citizens should be given “standing to sue” the federal government. It might surprise you to learn that the courts have often rejected the right of citizens to go to court to enforce state and federal laws. When I worked for Congress Watch, the D.C.-based lobbying group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, back in the late 1970s, one of our top goals was to make sure that when Congress passed a law, no matter the subject, it gave Americans the right to sue if a federal agency failed to enforce that law, conducted itself in an arbitrary manner, spent taxpayer money improperly, or if the law was unconstitutional. We were often unsuccessful, defeated by lobbyists for big business who hoped to later subvert the agencies with impunity. Nader has written frequently about this tool of democracy, and it’s also covered in an excellent biography of the Nader consumer organizations by David Bollier that is now available online.
Can you imagine how much economic damage could have been avoided if citizens had been able to sue the federal agencies that unilaterally stopped regulating the Money Industry over the last decade?
A lot of Americans don’t like litigation – because they have never seen how it can work to protect their interests as consumers or taxpayers. But suing the government is a crucial, even life-saving right that is part of the law in some states, including California. For example, my colleagues at Consumer Watchdog and I sued the California Department of Managed Health Care when it suddenly started permitting HMOs to evade state laws and deny autistic children medically-necessary treatments. The agency’s misconduct began after intense behind-the-scenes lobbying by the heath insurance companies. The trial will be held this fall in a Los Angeles Superior Court and based on a recent preliminary ruling by the judge, we are looking forward to forcing this renegade agency to follow the law.
No doubt the prospect of litigation against the government raises fears of wasted taxpayer resources. But court rules allow judges to block truly frivolous cases. And I believe the costs would be more than offset by the benefits to Americans.
Standing to sue is one of many proposals for systemic reform that you don’t hear much about, because they aren’t sexy. They involve changes to the internal mechanisms of government. But if they were adopted, government would operate far more effectively and with much greater accountability to the public.