Brookings: One political party is actively working to make government fail (guess which one!)


Then-President George W. Bush begins a round of golf in Kennebunkport, Maine, July 6, 2002. A Brookings Institution study finds that his administration was the most failure-ridden of all those studied. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The federal government is failing now more than ever. That's the conclusion of a unique taxonomy of federal ball-dropping just released by Paul C. Light, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Light analyzed 41 high-profile cases of federal failure from 2001 to the present day, culled from the Pew Research Center's News Interest Index. Because it's ultimately derived from news accounts, the contours of the list are roughly what you'd expect. It starts with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ends - for now - with the VA waiting list debacle in Phoenix. In between it covers everything from the search for WMDs in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to Operation Fast and Furious. You check out the full list in an interactive over at the Brookings website, or scroll to the bottom of this post.

As with any qualitative taxonomy, there's plenty of room quibble over which government mishaps made the cut and which didn't. For instance, last year's government shutdown, and the debt ceiling brinkmanship that led to the loss of S&P's AAA credit rating for U.S. debt in 2011, didn't make the cut. This is because Light focused only on "management/delivery failures by agencies. Some of these failures involved poorly crafted policy as a contributor, but failure had to come from the bureaucracy in some way." So business-as-usual gridlock in Congress doesn't make the cut.

Setting aside questions of inclusion/exclusion, Light's work is the only methodologically rigorous account of government failures we know of, so it's worth hearing what he has to say about these failures, what caused them, and how similar missteps can be avoided in the future.

Light breaks down the myriad factors that contribute to each of the failures he studies - bad policy, limited resources, and structural, leadership and cultural shortcomings. The study tracks the growing failure rate through the past five presidents. While many factors contribute to the generally increasing frequency of bureaucratic failures, the fluctuating numbers do reflect on an administration’s overall managerial competence. Light believes that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush led especially competent White House teams. Reagan, his study shows, averaged 1.6 failures per year during the final part of his term.

On the other hand, George W. Bush's administration was the most failure-ridden of them all. W. averaged 3.1 failures per year - overseeing more than twice as many annual failures as his father.

failure

Of course, by Light's account Obama isn't looking too hot either - he's currently running 2.9 failures per year, with a little over two years two go. "Good government is not just a function of good laws, it's also a function a faithful execution,” he said. In that area, President Obama does not get good grades. “Probably the lowest of any post-war president,” said Light in an interview. “I'd give him a C- on attentiveness, and a D on reform.”

In the report, Light writes that Obama promised reform and modernization but "he never followed through. He was either too distracted to concentrate, too bored by the nitty gritty of management or too frightened of the Republican backlash to make the effort needed to make big government work.”

He added that the grades could improve in Obama’s final two years if the president sought administrative reform and pressed Congress to give the next president more authority to take on improvements in governance.

Two factors complicate the failure rate under Obama. The first is that many of the missteps under Obama had their roots in the Bush administration. That administration "could have fixed the information technology systems that led to the healthcare.gov and veterans breakdowns, but didn't. They could have fixed the civil service system that led to the problems in the Secret Service and the General Services Administration, but didn't. And of course they could have fixed some of the policy problems that led to the 2008 financial collapse and the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, but didn't."

The other factor is the level of fierce Congressional opposition Obama has faced in office. Light writes that political polarization is "a grand contributor" to the rise in government failure. But he notes that Democratic contributions mostly take the form of neglect and omission - they ignored "the slow decimation of government capacity, and refused to embrace the need for bold thinking on how to improve its performance."

Republican contributions to government failure, on the other hand, have been "very deliberate." Here Light minces no words, and its worth quoting him at length:

Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing; they used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies, and appointed more than their share of unqualified executives; and they muddied mission, tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance measure process to guarantee failing scores for as many government policies as possible.

In short, Light concludes that not only is political polarization "worse than it looks," it is also "more destructive than imagined. And it is becoming more threatening to government performance as the distance between the two parties increases."

Complete list of government failures, 2001-2014, ranked by overall news interest

# Government Failure Date News Interest Demand Curve Core Activity Description of Failures
1 9/11 Terrorist Attacks* 2001 96% Surge Oversight Despite early alerts of the possible threat, al-Qaeda operatives were able to hijack four commercial airliners on September 11, 2001, and used them as missiles to attack the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon.
2 Financial Collapse* 2008 92% Steady Oversight After years of risky investments and with little regulation, the banking system collapsed under the weight of toxic assets created by risky mortgage loans, poorly understood financial instruments, and a credit crisis that froze the economy.
3 Hurricane Katrina* 2005 91% Surge Operations Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005, breaching the levees protecting New Orleans; stranding thousands of residents on rooftops, in the Superdome, and on bridges; and freezing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state agencies.
4 Gulf Oil Spill* 2010 88% Steady Oversight An explosion on British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform killed 11 oil workers, while the failure of a "blow-out preventer" created a leak far below that lasted 87 days and caused the largest oil spill in history.
5 Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse* 2004 87%** Surge Operations Prisoners at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison were abused and humiliated by U.S. guards and contractors, leading to widespread publication of photos from the incident, and later reports of similar abuse at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
6 Boston Marathon Bombings 2013 85% Steady Oversight A known terrorist and his younger brother detonated improvised "pressure-cooker" bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three spectators and wounding 250 others. The older brother was on at least two terrorist watch lists.
7 Shuttle Columbia Accident* 2003 82% Steady Operations A breach of the Space Shuttle Columbia's heat shield upon reentry after a 16-day mission killed its seven-member crew, and confirmed many of the same problems that caused the Challenger disaster almost two decades earlier.
8 Code Orange Terrorism Alert 2004 81% Steady Operations The Secretary of Homeland Security succumbed to White House pressure, and raised the threat level from elevated (yellow) to orange (high risk) just days after the Democratic national convention ended.
9 I-35W Bridge Collapse 2007 80% Steady Oversight Thirteen people were killed and 90 injured when an interstate highway bridge perched over the Mississippi River in Minnesota collapsed during rush hour in part due to a repair project designed to fix a flawed design.
10 Mine Accidents* 2006 80% Steady Oversight Twelve miners were killed when methane gas exploded inside a West Virginia mine, and another six were killed soon after when the walls collapsed inside a Utah mine. Other mine disasters occurred in the interim.
11 Fort Hood Shooting 2009 78% Steady Oversight Army Major Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 people and wounded another 43 while shouting, "Allah is great," in a terrorist attack at Fort Hood, Texas. Hassan later described himself as a "soldier of Allah."
12 Consumer Product Recalls 2007 77% Surge Oversight The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued 473 recalls during a surge in Chinese imports that slipped into the United Sates without inspection, but could not keep up with the flood of cheap and often toxic toys.
13 Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction* 2003 76% Surge Operations United States forces were unable to find even a trace of the alleged biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction that created momentum for the Iraq War. Specially trained U.S. troops spent two years in the search before giving up.
14 Christmas Day Bombing Plot 2009 73% Steady Oversight A terrorist attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear in the final minutes of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, but was subdued by the flight crew and passengers. After early assertions that the system had worked, the secretary of Homeland Security admitted that it had "failed miserably."
15 Flu Vaccine Shortage 2004 71% Surge Operations Flu vaccine supplies plummeted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just as the 2004 flu season began, and were late to recover because the agency had no contingency plan for such shortages.
16 Benghazi Attack 2012 67% Surge Operations The U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed during an attack by heavily armed forces that launched what appears to have been a coordinated attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi.
17 Navy Yard Shootings 2013 66% Steady Oversight Armed with a shotgun purchased only days before, a Navy subcontractor shot and killed 12 people, and injured three others after using a valid entry pass to smuggle the weapon into the Washington Navy Yard.
18 Enron Bankruptcy* 2001 66% Steady Oversight The Enron Corporation filed for bankruptcy after misrepresenting its financial health through false statements, and committing both securities and wire fraud. Worldcom and Adelphia soon followed suit.
19 Healthcare.gov Launch 2013 64% Surge Oversight Designed as an easily accessible portal to health insurance, healthcare.gov crashed under heavy traffic, producing long wait times, frozen screens, and uncompleted applications.
20 Wounded Soldiers* 2007 62% Surge Operations Wounded soldiers being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center were abused, neglected, and quartered in filthy, cockroach-infested facilities. Further investigation revealed similar conditions throughout the veterans' health system.
21 Veterans Health Care Waiting List 2014 61% Steady Operations The Department of Veterans Affairs came under intense criticism in May 2014 for long waiting times and secret waiting lists in providing outpatient appointments. Initial reports alleged that as many as 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments in Phoenix alone.
22 Madoff Ponzi Scheme 2008 60% Steady Oversight Despite explicit warnings that Bernard Madoff had built an elaborate Ponzi scheme, the Securities and Exchange Commission never investigated his too-good-to-be-true success. Madoff was turned in by his sons in 2008 and eventually convicted of a $65 billion fraud that had lasted for the better part of two decades.
23 Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion 2013 59% Steady Oversight An explosion at an ammonium nitrate plant killed 12 firefighters and destroyed most of the surrounding town of West, Texas. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board blamed all levels of government for failing to identify the hazard and correcting it through policies that would have prohibited building the plant so close to the community.
24 Vioxx Drug Recall 2004 59% Steady Oversight Despite warnings that its best-selling Vioxx pain killer doubled cardiovascular risk, Merck continued to sell the drug without any Food and Drug Administration post-market review for almost six years before withdrawing it voluntarily.
25 Food Safety Recalls 2007 56% Surge Oversight The Food and Drug Administration issued dozens of warnings and recalls of food products such as eggs, meat, peanut butter, peppers, and pet food that had slipped through its porous inspection system in 2007.
26 Enhanced Interrogation Techniques 2007 55% Steady Operations Although the agency had used "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding on detanees since 2001, the story finally reached the public in 2007 and returned to the news two years later with further information released by the Obama administration.
27 Haditha Killings 2005 55% Steady Operations United States soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha after an improvised explosive device, or bomb, exploded beneath one of their Humvees. The platoon leader was charged with two counts of premeditated homicide, but the charges were later dropped.
28 Shoe Bomber Terrorist Plot 2001 54% Steady Oversight A terrorist attempted to ignite explosives hidden in one of his tennis shoes on board a trans-Atlantic flight, but was subdued by the flight crew and passengers who smelled the bomber's match smoke and took immediate action.
29 Secret Service Misconduct 2012 51% Steady Operations Thirteen Secret Service agents arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, 48 hours before President Obama was to arrive for an international summit, and spent their first night in the city soliciting prostitutes and drinking heavily.
30 Internal Revenue Service Targeting System 2013 50% Surge Operations The Internal Revenue Service unit that was responsible for granting tax-exempt status created a public relations disaster by setting aside applications from organizations with names such as "Tea Party," "Patriots," and "9/12" for further review.
31 National Security Agency Leaks 2013 50% Surge Oversight A contractor named Edward Snowden leaked about 250,000 secret files that he stole from the National Security Agency while working for the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm. Snowden escaped prosecution by evading capture, and is now residing in Russia.
32 Postal Service Financing Crisis 2011 49% Steady Oversight Faced with rising costs and declining volume, the Postal Service hit a severe financial crisis that prompted proposals for post office closings, elimination of Saturday delivery, personnel streamlining, and full privatization.
33 Southwest Airline Groundings 2008 49% Steady Operations Southwest Airlines was forced to ground 46 of its older Boeing 737 aircraft to search for fuselage cracks. The groundings exposed the Federal Aviation Administration porous inspection process, which involved lax oversight of its own contractors, and the lack of a clear oversight mission.
34 U.S. Attorney Firings* 2006 48% Steady Operations The Justice Department fired nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006 without warning or explanation in an alleged effort to punish perceived under-enforcement of voter fraud and corruption cases against Democrats.
35 Valerie Plame Cover Breach 2003 48% Surge Operations A group of senior presidential advisers exposed Valerie Plame as a secret operative of the Central Intelligence Agency in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the Bush administration's prewar intelligence allegations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
36 Chevrolet Cobalt Accidents* 2014 44% Steady Oversight Seven years after it rejected an investigation of deadly accidents that involved a faulty ignition switch, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHSTA) ordered General Motors to recall 2.2 million Chevrolet Cobalt and other vehicles for immediate repairs.
37 Tillman/Lynch Cover-Ups 2007 43% Steady Operations Two stories of early wartime heroism were discredited in 2007: (1) the capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in 2003, and (2) the enemy fire that killed Corporal Patrick Tillman in 2004. Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, while Lynch had never fired her weapon before being taken prisoner.
38 Blackwater Killings 2007 40% Surge Operations Operating under a contract with the State Department, heavily armed employees of Blackwater Security Consultants killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the civilians were killed "without cause."
39 General Services Conference 2010 39% Steady Operations The General Services Administration spent $822,000 on a lavish four-day Las Vegas conference for 300 employees that included numerous "scouting trips" for advance planning. The conference featured skits, a clown, and psychic readings.
40 Abramoff Lobbying* 2006 38% Steady Oversight "Super-Lobbyist" Jack Abramoff designed and eventually pled guilty to a complicated bribery scheme that involved at least one member of Congress, a senior White House official, and was ordered to repay at least $25 million in fraudulent billings.
41 Operation Fast and Furious* 2011 37% Steady Operations Operation Fast and Furious was a Justice Department program designed to follow illegal firearms as they "walked" across the border to the top of the Mexican drug cartels. However, many of the firearms were lost once as they changed hands, and one might have been used to kill a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent.

* Subject of a historically significant congressional or presidential investigation; see Paul C. Light, Government by Investigation: Congress, Presidents, and the Search for Answers, 1945–2012 (Brookings/Governance, 2014), for the full list. The failed search for weapons of mass destruction and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse were both part of the long-running congressional and presidential investigation of Iraq War conduct, and are included here as separate investigations.

** This figure comes from the Center's May 12, 2004, survey showing that 87 percent of respondents were paying very or fairly close attention to the situation in Iraq, which followed the Center's May 9, 2004, survey showing that 92 percent of respondents had heard about reports of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops, and 76 percent had seen photos from the incident. The proximity of the surveys strongly suggests that respondent interest in the situation in Iraq was heavily influenced by the Abu Ghraib story. Hence, I put the incident on my list in combination with allegations of prisoner abuse at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2005.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.
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