Over the weekend, I spent time thinking about how key policy decisions are made by leaders. I have been fortunate in my professional life to fill senior staff, advisor and leadership roles in public, foundation, non-profit, and private sectors. It has always amazed me that while we often articulate a quest for rationality, data and conclusive analyses, we, most times, seem to settle for far less.
Let us focus on the public sector. As Dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, I sometimes testified before the Colorado legislature or its varied committees on various policy issues. I remember asking some friends in the legislature how they made up their mind on important votes. It was a serious conversation. One very bright legislator indicated that his last decision was premised on lobbyists, whom he respected, convincing him. While staff had outlined the findings of a recent study concerning alternatives, he had not read it. Didn’t have the time! Another legislator suggested that she premised her vote on her party loyalty and the position of the then minority leader of one of the two branches of the legislature. She did read the analysis but thought it was not conclusive. It also ran counter to her long held convictions. A third legislator noted that he was on the committee that reviewed the bill. His vote was premised on discussions in the committee and a few phone calls from what he said were “legitimate” interest groups, particularly groups from his district. One legislator, almost hesitatingly, said that he was influenced by the above mentioned study, but, in truth, more by a conversation with his spouse who was a public affairs specialist. He and his wife, like Rock Hudson and Doris Day, also shared pillow talk. (How many of you remember Doris Day, the All-American Hollywood star in the movie “Pillow Talk”?)
The discussion did not include a random selection of participants. But I have had many conversations since then with congressmen, their staff and leaders of government agencies, as well as White House personnel who, collectively, testify to the validity of the range of comments from Colorado. All of us want to try to make and we need to tell people we do make decisions in a rational manner; who would indicate otherwise? But in an earlier blog, I indicated that noted political scientist, Charles E. Lindblom had it mostly right. Policy decisions are based, to a large degree, on “muddling through.” They reflect a variety of factors…personal obligations and opportunity costing, promises to constituents and others, the political environment and party politics, time and cost constraints, ideological commitments and sometimes analyses (often competitive), etc. In making decisions, we adapt, we negotiate, and we, sometimes, give way to the more powerful or, even sometimes, the learned among us. Many times our gut or intuition governs what we finally support when we need to make a decision.
How does this relate to natural gas and the use of its derivative methanol as transportation fuels? As the reader of Over a Barrel knows, I am convinced based on reading many solid studies, extensive conversations with scholars, experts in the field and colleagues at the Fuel Freedom Foundation, that it’s time for Congress to do more than muddle through. There is enough solid evidence from reputable non-partisan, non-kept and paid for analysts to suggest that efforts to end the costly, innovation crushing, monopoly that significantly restricts the transportation fuel market to oil derived gasoline should be granted congressional priority.
Is Congress up to the task? Let’s see if Congress can add transparency and at least a bit of science as well as rationality to the Congressional decision-making process. Over the summer, independent, respected groups should provide each member with an easy-to-read set of findings from recent studies (i.e. CBO, Universities, Urban Institute etc.), with no ax to grind, concerning the economic, safety and environmental benefits and costs associated with use of flex fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, gasoline in automobiles and trucks.
Preceding public hearings in the fall, senior congressional staff and congressmen should be invited to colloquia convened by non-partisan “holier than thou” experts concerning the benefits and costs of open fuel standards and reduced regulations concerning the production of new flex fuel cars and the conversion of older vehicles to flex fuels. Sufficient guilt and, perhaps, the promise of some form of ethically defined extrinsic and intrinsic rewards or penalties (short of sequestering which would be “a bridge too far”) should “encourage” thinking and careful deliberation by congressmen. To the extent possible, communication with lobbyists and interest groups should be made public. Votes should be scheduled in advance and when they come, governed by majority rule. The process, if democratic (small d), would be a July 4th gift and, indeed, an everyday gift to the American people. Over the Barrel bets that the probable outcome would be an opening of the market for flex fuels and an increase in flex fuel automobiles. Imagine driving up to a “fuel” (not a gas) station and being able to choose among different fuels. It’s the American way: free markets, free choices, a better environment and lower costs! Almost as good as Norman Rockwell and Mom, Pop and Apple Pie!