Our broken government

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The 2008 presidential race produced its share of philosophical and political disputes, but one broad area of agreement underlined the campaigns of both nominees: The federal government is not functioning as it should. A McCain ad began, “Washington's broken. John McCain knows it,” while one of Barack Obama’s spots warned, “The truth is that while you’ve been living up to your responsibilities, Washington has not.” 

In fact, the executive branch is proving unable to meet many of its most basic obligations to the American public. And the public appears to be increasingly uneasy. National polls show that less than 30 percent of Americans approve of President George W. Bush’s job performance, among the worst numbers since pollsters began tracking presidential approval in the 1940s. A mid-November Gallup Poll showed that 87 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the way things are going in America today. 

Just how bad is this government dysfunction? In an effort to answer that question, the Center for Public Integrity embarked on an examination of the worst systematic failures of the federal government over the past eight years.

In this, a comprehensive assessment of these failures, we found more than 125 examples of government breakdown in areas as diverse as education, energy, the environment, justice and security, the military and veterans affairs, health care, transportation, financial management, consumer and worker safety, and more — failures which adversely affected ordinary people and made the nation a less open or less secure place to live. While some are, by now, depressingly familiar, many are less well-known but equally distressing. And though the list is diverse, it also reflects some recurring — and troubling — themes.

Some of these problems were in place well before George W. Bush’s inauguration, but were exacerbated by his policies or worsened by his administration’s actions (or inactions). Many of the failings are tied to Bush appointees who appear to have been selected primarily on the basis of ideology and loyalty, rather than competence. Every administration has its share of political cronies, of course, but the examples of the past eight years seem especially stark:

  • a National Aeronautics and Space Administration inspector general who blocked multiple investigations — Republican Senator Charles Grassley said of his leadership: “I thought he’d be gone by now. . . . You’d like to have him get the message.”
  • a secretary of Housing and Urban Development who openly encouraged his staff to consider political affiliation when awarding contracts.
  • a team leading the Department of the Interior that was so flagrantly involved in political activity that the department’s own inspector general noted that “short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.”

The administration has also displayed what’s at best a lukewarm interest in independent oversight, often siding with business over consumers and special interests over the public. The results have had dramatic consequences in a variety of sectors. Among the examples:

  • an Environmental Protection Agency that largely ignored and underutilized its own office and task force on children’s health, leaving the governmental entity responsible for air quality and other regulations without any “high-level infrastructure or mandate” to protect children.
  • a Food and Drug Administration unable to guarantee food and drug safety — causing conservative Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas to repeatedly blast the agency for “stonewalling, slow-rolling, and plain incompetency.”
  • a Federal Labor Relations Board that in the past year has been without a general counsel and the required quorum necessary to handle hundreds of complaints regarding unfair labor practices.

Much of the function of the federal government shifted from public employees to private contractors, as federal spending on contractors nearly doubled from FY 2001 to FY 2006, jumping from $234.8 billion to $415 billion. These contracts often lacked competitive bidding processes and effective oversight and suffered from cost overruns and poor execution.

Finally, the White House and its political appointees have frequently inserted themselves into matters of science, overruling experts and suppressing reports that did not coincide with the administration’s philosophy. The nonpartisan Union of Concerned Scientists warned that “political interference in federal government science is weakening our nation’s ability to respond to the complex challenges we face.”

“I think we’ll look back on this period as one of the most destructive periods in American public life . . . both in terms of policy and process,” Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, told the Center. “The broken government is not limited to one end of Pennsylvania Avenue; it involves the executive and legislative branches, which both contributed to embracing policies and actions that have come back to haunt us.”

How did we get here? The answers go back decades. Since the Ronald Reagan years substantial portions of the Republican Party have believed that the federal government operates inefficiently, and is more often part of the problem than part of the solution. That philosophy has underscored a continuing quest to dismantle pieces of the federal government and to regulate as little as possible. Reagan famously joked that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

That thinking was adopted by some Democrats as well. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected in 1992 promising to “reinvent government,” eliminate excessive regulation, and cut the size of government. Clinton’s “Putting People First” plan called for a 25 percent reduction in the White House staff and elimination of 100,000 jobs in the bureaucracy, and the 42nd president largely delivered. Amid outsourcing, government shrinkage, and deregulation, Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over.”

George W. Bush enthusiastically picked up the anti-government, anti-regulation mantle. In his first address to Congress in 2001, Bush declared: “Government has a role and an important role. Yet too much government crowds out initiative and hard work, private charity, and the private economy. Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited; engaged, but not overbearing.”

Behind the limited government mantra was the gnawing perception — pushed hard by Vice President Dick Cheney — that the reforms of the post-Watergate era had dangerously weakened the presidency. Cheney and others in the administration thus began advocating a more “unitary executive” — a vision of the president as a singularly powerful chief executive. Over time, Bush enthusiastically bought in. The concept of the “unitary executive” only further empowered Bush and his allies as they plowed forward with their vision of spending cuts, deregulation, and concentration of power within the confines of White House.

“In my judgment, there’s a clear connection between the Bush administration’s governing philosophy and the abuse of power we have seen in the last eight years,” presidential historian Robert Dallek told the Center. “The Bush-Cheney assumption has been that the post-Watergate reforms weakened the presidency and a president’s ability to deal with foreign dangers. Much of what they have done has been an attempt to right this so-called imbalance. The result has been a resurgence of the imperial presidency.”

“We saw genuine distortion in the constitutional system, an exaggerated sense of presidential power and prerogative and acquiescence by a Republican Congress in the face of the first unified Republican government since Dwight Eisenhower,” Mann added. “That led to abuses. Certainly, it led to bad policies, because Congress wasn’t challenging the executive along the way and overseeing it. And I think it encouraged a diminution in the capacity of government to deal with important problems.”

But a series of cataclysmic events has started to change the nation’s view of what the government’s role should be — and has necessarily altered some of the administration’s approach to governing. Those events have also put new strains on federal operations and have brought the consequences of federal failure into sharper relief.

First came the tragedies of September 11, 2001. The Bush administration determined that in order to keep the nation safe from further acts of terrorism, a major expansion of law enforcement, intelligence, and military operations was required. While no major terrorist acts have occurred on American soil since, the dramatic growth of the nation’s security apparatus has been a messy, expensive process involving missteps, bureaucratic turf battles, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security — the largest government reorganization since 1947.

Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed a reported 1,698 people — and in the process laid bare a response that was chaotic at best, dysfunctional at worst. The breakdown in emergency response at all levels of government also demonstrated that some catastrophes and crises are so large that they truly require federal government organization and management.

Most recently, the financial meltdown and the administration’s attempts to bail out the financial services sector have caused many to conclude that deference to the “trust us” mantra of Wall Street and unquestioned faith in the free market’s ability to self-regulate required re-thinking.

All the while, globalization’s myriad impacts continue to be felt at home. Increased trade with other countries has resulted in a flood of new imports that must be monitored for both safety and homeland security. A host of scares involving dangerous food, drug, and toy imports have made clear the need for more oversight of products manufactured overseas. Meanwhile, cargo holds carrying potentially dangerous weapons require port security officials to screen more freight than ever before.

As a result, today — in the midst of a historic transfer of power — the pendulum appears to be swinging the other way in regard to regulation and the role of government, among Republicans as well as Democrats. It is thus an opportune moment to provide an inventory of just what’s broken — and perhaps a bit of a blueprint for just what needs fixing.

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