Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Abandoning Public Service?

James Skillen


January 6, 1997

The renewal of American life, which we all hope for, must include political change. Of course, fragmenting families, failing schools, growing inner city distress, and declining public and private integrity are not problems that can be addressed by greater governmental outlays alone. Yet solutions will have to include redesigned public policies—real school choice, for example, or greater legal acknowledgment of parental authority. Moreover, government itself needs renewal, from ensuring that minority voices are heard in elections without racial gerrymandering to lasting reform of Social Security and Medicare.

So it is not only a symptom but a cause of our current travails when dedicated political leaders abandon public office. Dan Coats, Republican Senator from Indiana, is the latest in a long line of prominent politicians who have decided to leave Congress, recently announcing that he would not seek re-election when his term expires next year.

Leaving now, Sen. Coats said, affords him the opportunity to take up a career outside of politics, "a chance to follow God's leading to something new." And exiting Congress now exemplifies his view that public office should be only a temporary job.

But Coats also stressed in his resignation statement how onerous it is to run for re-election. It would demand two years of "single-minded devotion" to raising funds and cultivating voters. Coats says that it is only because he decided not to run again that he is free to dedicate himself to being a "full-time Senator" for his state and the nation. What a scandal that the very process by which we select our public servants hampers their ability to serve the public!

Senator Coats gave one other reason for leaving government: he wants to work directly with "those traditional institutions of family, church, charity and volunteer associations" that hold the "ultimate answers" to America's problems. Government must play a role if America is to be renewed, he said, but "there is also much to be done beyond government."

This is a key insight of the current era of American reform. Government is not the center of life and it is not the exclusive source of solutions to public problems. When we encounter social needs our first response should be to see how we can help, not how to rope in a government program.

But the do-it-yourself sentiment is pernicious if it becomes anti-political. A healthy civil society requires an appropriate legal framework and government's support. Public subsidies, combined with regulatory changes, can catalyze the nongovernmental actions that revitalize distressed neighborhoods. Good marriages require mutual devotion but also laws that bolster commitment. Public welfare authorities provide a vital link between welfare families seeking personal help and churches and social groups eager to provide voluntary mentoring programs.

It's unfortunate that Coats' statement de-emphasized this necessary interdependence. Indeed, making government a support for the social sector is the core idea of his own innovative set of proposals called the Project for American Renewal.

Senator Coats has rightly emphasized that his public service will only change, not end, when he leaves government service. No doubt he can do much good outside of government. Yet the end of his congressional service will be a loss both for government and for the nongovernment sector. For Senator Coats is one of the few national politicians who has been trying to think creatively about how government and social institutions should be related. And as much as our society needs creative leadership in the nonprofit sector, the renewal of America also requires creative insight and determined leadership by political leaders dedicated to pursuing government's limited but constructive role in society.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”