Broken Government

Cover Art for Broken Government: An assessment of 128 executive branch failures since 2000, issued December 10 by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center for Public Integrity blog for December 9 announces its new report, “Broken Government” with a formal publication date of tomorrow. For those of you unfamiliar with the center, it produces “original investigative journalism about significant public issues to make institutional power more transparent and accountable.” Its newest report

tell[s] the story of what has gone wrong with our government over the last administration — and what needs to be fixed by the next one.

The Center asks that go to this form and add additional examples of

an important failure in a federal department or agency. Tell us why this is important, how it happened, and how it has directly affected citizens. And please tell us how you learned of the failure. If you can point us to any documentation, public or private, that would help make our coverage even stronger.

Here’s a complete list of links to problems already enumerated in the report. You can also look up the failures by agency or by the categories of

Josh Israel (email) the project coordinator, also authored the September 2008 report, “Two-Party Debates: A Corporate-Funded, Party-Created Commission Decides Who Debates — and Who Stays Home,” which was part of the Center’s protect, The Buying of the President 2008.

In his introduction to Broken Government, Israel writes that

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.

He outlines

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.


He says that while

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.

Some examples of his list, which he terms “stark” are:

  • 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.”

He also criticizes the administration for displaying

what’s at best a lukewarm interest in independent oversight, often siding with business over consumers and special interests over the public.

Hre are examples he highlights:

  • 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 repeatedlylast the agency for “stonewalling, slowrolling, 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.

He also details how the federal government shifted its functions

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.

Another troubling trend, he contends is how

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.”

He quotes Thomas E. Mann (email, website), Congressional scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:

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,” , 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.

He then traces how we arrived at this state, going back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan when the Republican Party, in large part, started to criticize federal government, saying it

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.”

Democrats, according to Israel continued the trend:

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 Bush, of course, did likewise:

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.”

And yet, ironically, Cheney also sought to strengthen the presidency:

Behind the limited government mantra was the gnawing perception — pushed hard by Vice President Dick Cheney — that the reforms of the postWatergate 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.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek (email, website), professor emeritus at UCLA, told Israel,

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…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.

Brooking’s Mann added,

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…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.

Israel then traces the effects of 9-11, Katrina, and the current financial melt-down as a

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.

Of 9-11, Israel writes,

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.

With regard to Katrina in 2005, he adds that the hurricane

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.

He maintains that that the attempted bail-out of the financial sector the administration has

caused many to conclude that deference to the “trust us” mantra of Wall Street and unquestioned faith in the free market’s ability to selfregulate
required rethinking.

Meanwhile, to all this, he adds the effects of globilization:

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.

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