Featured Interview With William L. Kovacs
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
Scranton, PA, coal; Bethlehem, PA, steel, industrial America; the places I lived for my first 21 years. The late 1950s and early 60s was an uncomplicated society, small houses, and few possessions by today’s standards. Activities included Little League, Friday football, neighbors to talk to, and bikes for transportation.
That world does not exist any longer; time disposed of it. But it was my baseline for understanding my future world. My involvement in government allowed me to observe firsthand a federal government transitioning from one that generally worked for the people into one that seemingly can never work for us.
My first adventure into a world wider than northeast PA was when I attended Ohio State law school. Accidental meetings sometime determine one’s path forward. My father was in a Bethlehem, PA bar, conversing with a stranger. He indicated I was looking for a summer job. The stranger told him he knew the local congressman and would call him about hiring me for the summer of 1970. I worked hard that summer in DC and the next summer. The congressman hired me as his legislative assistant when I graduated.
There were some tumultuous times in the early 70s, especially with President Nixon, who impounded appropriated funds needed by the congressman’s district for water and sewer programs. I came up with the “wild ass” idea to sue the administration. To make a very long story short, we sued for the funds and won. Nixon’s Justice Department took it out on me by putting me under a criminal investigation. Thanks to Senator Sam Irvin, who held a hearing on the Administration of Justice in the Nixon administration, the matter was dropped.
At the end of 1974, the “Watergate babies” were elected to Congress. My congressman became a committee chairman; in the day’s chairman were powerful members of Congress. For my hard work and loyalty, he appointed me at age 29 as chief-counsel of his subcommittee, which became the biggest challenge of my life.
A month into the job Congress, in 1975, I had to confront the bankruptcy and reorganization of the Penn Central Railroad, the largest bankruptcy in the U.S. at that time. It may sound like tedious corporate work, but failure to reorganize the railroad would result in much of U.S. commerce coming to a halt. My only contact with a railroad till then was to take a few train rides from DC to home to see my parents.
While the Penn Central Railroad reorganization has been widely documented, it taught me many life-long lessons about politics. Most significantly, members of Congress, the administration, and all the staff work for the American people, not political parties. That type of thinking was prevalent in the 1970s and early 80s. The negotiations were rough, but by going through the regular process, i.e., hearings, markup, floor vote, conference with Senate, consultation with the administration, we all knew we would arrive at a workable reorganization. Working for the American people is the critical point missing form today’s politics.
Congress passed the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act after exhausting floor debate, a presidential veto, more floor debate, and eventually consensus, a presidential signature and a big White House reception. Commerce continued; taxpayers got their money back, and the nation prospered. Congress got its work done.
The next year environmental issues became the focus of concern. Rivers were burning, hazardous waste thrown in backyards and fields, and some of the first studies were released on the impact of improper waste disposal on humans. I was lucky with the hazardous waste issue; there was no federal law, so no one knew much about it.
Learning a lot about political deals from the Penn Central debate, I asked the minority counsel to sit with me in every meeting on hazardous waste, so we both heard the same information. My reasoning, it’s hard to dispute facts. For the next eight months, we had hundreds of meetings with impacted parties. Minority counsel and I were able to present the entire committee with a structure that had almost universal support. Before Congress went home to campaign, the last bill passed in the 1976 Congress was the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It regulated the generation, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste from cradle to grave. It is still the primary law today that regulates hazardous waste.
In 1977, I left the Hill to practice law; I wanted a new experience. It was tedious, and billing time in six-minute increments made life go very slow. Fundamentally, it was a mistake that was hard to undo. However, it did allow me to make some money, buy a house in Northern Virginia, educate my kids, and buy more “stuff” than I needed. After realizing I was not too fond of law practice, it took over a decade to find an exciting job.
In 1997, a position at the U.S. Chamber, running its Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs division, opened up when its long-time leader abruptly retired. Friends inside the organization thought I was the perfect candidate and asked me to apply. I got the job.
For the next twenty years, that job allowed me to manage many interesting issues, including environment, energy, telecommunications, regulatory affairs, technology, food safety, and agriculture. It was a great job that had me testify before Congress forty times, participate in over 500 federal rulemakings and lead many national coalitions.
The Obama administration was brutal with its executive overreach, massive new regulatory structures, and political polarization. Worse, reality caught up with Congress. It had delegated a great many powers to the executive branch, and in a divided Congress, it could not reclaim its primary legislative authority. Concurrently, the courts were issuing sweeping decisions, functioning literally as “super-legislatures.”
At the end of 2017, with a recognition that the Trump administration would operate in an equally arbitrary manner, but on different policies, I retired to write Reform the Kakistocracy. While I never expected to produce a best-seller, I hoped to generate a discussion of problems in need of policy solutions.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
I found books later in life when I attended a Jesuit college (University of Scranton). It had small classes and made students read and discuss books. Fred Rotondaro, an English professor, taught several of my classes. He devoted a great deal of time to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was his tool to to have students explore their role in the world.
As to writing, I have been writing since law school, but mostly “scholarly” articles, i.e., law reviews, chapters in books. When I retired, I started writing what I wanted to write, i.e., my book, "Reform the Kakistocracy: Rule by the Least Able or Least Principled Citizens," articles for several publications. My second book comes out in the next few months: "The Left’s Little Red Book on Forming a Green New Republic." It is a small book, a chapbook that uses quotations to illustrate how the radical Left uses words to manipulate thought.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
Favorite authors: Samuel Becket, Eugene Ionesco, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Ralph Ellison, Edwin Abbott, Sun Tzu, Thomas Paine and Amity Shlaes.
Plays, especially Theatre of the Absurd and political theory are my favorites to read.
Tell us a little about your latest book?
My latest book is Reform the Kakistocracy
Kakistocracy, a term describing what our government has become, a government-controlled by "leaders" who are the least able or least principled citizens.
Reform the Kakistocracy describes how our federal government transformed itself from one of limited powers to one of immense power without any constitutional changes. In this decades-long transformation, Congress delegated significant legislative authority to the Executive, which uses it through regulation and Executive Orders. Concurrently, the courts, through sweeping decisions, amassed the powers of a super-legislature. These revisions change how each branch of government fulfills its institutional role as a check on the other branches' powers. They also fundamentally affect the relationship of citizens to their government.
The result of the transformation is decades of policy failures, harmful wealth inequality, a healthcare system costing two times more than in other industrialized nations, and the imposition of such massive amounts of debt that citizens will eventually live in involuntary servitude the federal government.
Reform the Kakistocracy asks the fundamental question – "For whom did we form a government?" The answer provides a practical discussion of how policy is made in light of many competing interests, i.e., government officials dealing with vague laws and regulations, deal-making, supporters, opponents, citizens, political parties, interest groups, and others branches of government.
The book's thesis is that government is so complex, and politics and politicians are so polarized; it is impossible to govern by formulating workable solutions to the nation's problems. The result is political chaos created by government officials giving their loyalty to political parties, not citizens or the Constitution. Giving loyalty to political parties is entirely misplaced judgment; government officials must function as fiduciaries to the Constitution, not handmaidens to politics.
Unlike many books on government reform, Reform the Kakistocracy does not let the reader dangle with vague ideas. It presents clear, thought-provoking proposals for restructuring the kakistocracy to achieve a sustainable government that citizens can manage. A few of the policies proposed: reallocating powers between federal, state, and local government to eliminate massive duplication of programs; prioritizing the work of government to address the most critical issues first, selling off unused assets and property to reduce debt; reducing the complexity of laws and regulations; devolving federal powers to the states for greater efficiency of operation and restructuring the income tax code to eliminate complexity, unfairness and tax-avoidance schemes while raising sufficient revenue, at the lowest tax rates, to pay for programs needed by citizens.
The book's roadmap is controversial, aggressive, and likely to be detested by politicians, but it puts serious, creative ideas into the marketplace.
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