How to dissolve funding logjams in Congress

October 21, 2016  - By
Image: GPS World

[Editor’s note: This is the Signals Leadership Award acceptance speech given by Clark Cohen at GPS World’s 2016 Leadership Dinner in September. The Award was recognized the development of alternates to GPS based on communication satellites: a method for adding high-accuracy ranging capability to Iridium by modifying the transmitted signal structure of an already flying, programmable constellation. ]

Thank you GPS World, industry sponsors, and colleagues who engaged in the selection process. I appreciate the honor.

The Advanced Waveform was the second and most ambitious broadcast that we developed for the DoD-sponsored iGPS program. It is a wide-bandwidth (10 MHz maximum spectrum allocation), near-white, high-power broadcast with independently resolvable code and carrier capable of illuminating regions of the world at any time. Yet Iridium was never designed for navigation.

I am grateful to the Naval Research Lab, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Boeing, and Iridium for their support. Also, many capable people comprised our team. Completeness is impossible, but I’ll highlight the efforts of Dick Cervisi, Kamran Ghassemi, Ann Stevens, Robert Scholl, Tom Guffey, Bernie McCormick and Mark Psiaki.

The commercial Iridium constellation is built on billions of dollars of private capital. Meanwhile, the iGPS overlay required Congressional appropriation. But if the technical part weren’t challenging enough, the politics were, in my view, a bit too hard.

My topic is the future of public-private partnerships. Such partnerships include the GPS space and ground segments and most other government projects. Our broken, inflexible Congress is not helping. My answer here for the family dinner table is not political — it’s structural, non-partisan, systems engineering.

We can do better than handicapped innovation, winner-take-all procurements, Nunn-McCurdy triggers, continuing resolutions, debt-limit brinksmanship and government shut-downs. This is not to judge people. Good people are operating under imperfect rules.

House elections now resemble a stuck, one-bit, analog-to-digital converter. Hundreds of individual races, cumulate the equivalent of input noise and bias, rendering the House largely unresponsive to voters. Consent of the governed demands a healthy, moderating feedback loop from people to representatives to laws and back. Cutting this loop spells trouble.

A major root cause of dysfunction is winner-take-all, single-member districts. Geographical voting made sense in the 18th century. But in an increasingly complex, connected world, where you live is no longer a stand-in for what you think.

We need to start dissolving district boundaries themselves. An elegant approach is aggregating adjacent single-member districts into larger multi-winner “super districts” with three to five members each. A refinement called Ranked Choice Voting eliminates spoiler hazard and incentivizes positive campaigns. No change to the Constitution is needed — only passing a law.

We should reset our expectations. Congress should be able to pass the nation’s budget on time every time. We don’t need drama around GPS modernization, backup terrestrial navigation, and spectrum protection. And America should boldly pioneer aspirational, cathedral-and-moonshot-scale, public-private initiatives.

Working hard and playing by the rules implies a value-added, positive-sum relationship with society. But to the extent that the rules are imperfect, don’t vestiges of zero-sum exchange imply collateral damage somewhere in society? Voters are rebelling by the millions. We should pay attention. America’s defining Revolutionary War was fought over taxation without representation.

Whether applied to sword or plowshare, precision feedback from GPS provides guidance to help minimize collateral damage. Updated voting rules will do the same for the nation. Everyone benefits from more efficient and effective execution. Yet perhaps our greatest harvest — should we choose to claim it for ourselves and our children — will follow from sowing new seeds of discovery and innovation through public-private partnerships on a vast and visionary scale.


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1 Comment on "How to dissolve funding logjams in Congress"

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  1. Tom Roberts says:

    The problems listed here are largely a product of the FAR and not a function of Congressional appropriation acts. In fact, most of the yearly appropriation bills are based on the Presidential Budget Requests, which are detailed descriptions of what USAF and the rest of DoD thinks is needed for the systems and programs. There are some dissonance between these Requests and the appropriations actually passed, but those generally are due reassessments of how what ought to have happened in an acquisition, didn’t happen.
    So if you want to correct most of these issues, you have to start with the acquisition process within DoD, a fact which the current AT&L recognizes in his Better Buying Power (BBP)initiatives.