Biden's order promises that taxpayers will be able to receive...

Biden's order promises that taxpayers will be able to receive many services online, including tax refunds based on prior returns, Social Security and Medicare benefits, Department of Agriculture loans, and so on. Credit: Getty Images/Constantine Johnny

President Joe Biden's executive order directing federal agencies to improve the online user experience won't push inflation out of the headlines or help his stalled Build Back Better proposal. But it is a good idea, and underneath all the details lies a deeper rationale: The best way for democratic states to counter domestic populism and foreign authoritarianism is to show that they can make government work on a day-to-day basis for ordinary people.

And the poor quality of federal digital infrastructure is absolutely a good place to start. The internet, of course, was in crucial respects a product of the U.S. government itself, and the U.S. rightly prides itself as a world leader in private-sector information technology. Public-sector IT, however, is often a clunky disaster — and fixing it should be a high priority.

Unfortunately, these are not problems that can be solved by executive orders alone. Biden's ideas will help, but fixing federal IT is going to require spending money, changing rules, tackling special interests, and other things that can only be done by a functional Congress. And that's exactly what's missing.

That said, Biden's proposals are admirably concrete. The order promises that taxpayers will be able to receive many services online: passport renewals, tax refunds based on prior returns, Social Security and Medicare benefits, Department of Agriculture loans, and so on.

If it happens, it'll be great. If it doesn't happen, it will be a specific failure that the president is accountable for — which should motivate his appointees at the agencies to get it done.

Perhaps the most significant idea is a bit less specific, and relates to eligibility for America's social safety net programs. These typically have eligibility criteria based on household income and family size, information that often needs to be submitted and verified on a program-by-program basis. This is also information that in most cases the IRS already has. Biden promises that families will be able to "more easily enroll in federal benefits and recertify their income status more easily across programs using direct certification, a process that automatically certifies income-eligible individuals without extra paperwork, instead of managing multiple, complicated processes that waste time and cause frustration."

This is a potential game-changer for the neediest families in America. But it's also easier said than done, at least on a large scale.

The American welfare state tends to be fragmented along state lines. In general this is not because some states are launching bold safety-net experiments while others lag behind. Instead, key federal programs — Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, unemployment insurance, and the like — are designed as joint state-federal ventures with mixed sources of funding and a heavy state role in implementation.

This fractured welfare state has never made much sense. And fragmentation is a formidable obstacle to this vision of seamless integration and cross-eligibility.

For starters, while Biden rightly wants to get low-income families enrolled in programs designed to help them, many more conservative politicians see administrative burdens to reduce enrollment as a useful form of what has been called "policymaking by other means." In other words: Kicking people off Medicaid may be politically challenging or legally impossible, but it's relatively easy to make it difficult for them to enroll or stay enrolled.

Administrative fragmentation also undercuts the great power of information technology, which is the ability to run things at scale. In a world where everything needs to be done through in-person offices, it doesn't matter so much whether those are state, federal or county. But the point is to have a nationwide network, and the power of the internet is that the government can build one really good SNAP website for everyone.

Biden can't fix this with a stroke of a pen. Rethinking fiscal federalism requires congressional action. Democrats would need to acknowledge the merits of plowing extra money into some existing programs even if it meant stepping back from their aspirations to generate big new state-federal joint ventures in child care and preschool. More important, Republicans would need to actually want to make the government work better.

Nowhere is this more visible than in a frustrating federal IT situation that Biden's order is silent on: filing taxes.

The IRS knows, in most cases, exactly how much money a given household owes each year. So the most reasonable way for tax filing to work would be for the IRS to send out itemized bills outlining how much people owe, and what that means in terms of a refund or payment. Taxpayers could file an objection if they believe the IRS has gotten it wrong.

The absurdity of the current situation is the large number of people who are filing via commercial software that requires them to tediously input information the IRS already has into a program that makes a calculation the IRS has already done. The persistence of this system is due not to dumb bureaucrats or presidential listlessness. It exists because the IRS is prohibited by law from competing with private tax-filing software thanks to a pernicious coalition of tax-prep industry lobbyists protecting their profits and anti-tax ideologues who want to make paying taxes as annoying as possible.

This is a poisonous dynamic. More broadly, it's the kind of maddening inefficiency that undermines public faith in democratic government. Unfortunately, it's not clear any big solutions are in the works. For now, though, it would be nice to have an easier way to renew your passport.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he is also the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."


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