What Happened to Good Government as an Issue?

Washington Matters

What Happened to Good Government as an Issue?

It's pretty hard to look at the state of the U.S. government these days and not have that line from the old late night commercial pop into your head: "Help. I've fallen and I can't get up!"

Massive regulatory failures involving drugs, food and consumer products, cover-ups of mistakes in air traffic control centers, applying ideological litmus tests in hiring, repeated defense procurement scandals and countless other lapses in judgment, ethics or simple competence have become so commonplace that abuses and screw-ups that used to inspire public outrage are generally greeted with weary shrugs. Even worse, there's little evidence that the two men fighting to be in charge of this mess have noticed.

Looking at newspaper just the past couple of days reveals:

  • White House officials refused to open an e-mail from the Environmental Protection Agency because they knew they wouldn't like the contents. The e-mail proposed ways to comply with a Supreme Court decision that said the administration had a legal obligation to treat greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Something along the lines of what EPA proposed will doubtless become law in coming years, an utterly avoidable delay caused by officials unwilling to listen to their own experts and even the courts.
  • Even though the new Department of Transportation building was designed and constructed with guidance from the government's own disability and access experts, disabled employees have run into countless problems -- including tray slides in the cafeteria that are so high people in wheelchairs are unable to reach them and move their trays from one station to another. The problems are being fixed, at a cost of millions of dollars, and assistance is being offered in the meantime. But to add insult to injury, a memo asked those needing help to avoid the cafeteria during crunch times.
  • The inspector general for the Justice Department issued a report that found that department officials illegally applied ideological and political criteria to skip over otherwise qualified candidates to a high-level recruiting program. Danger signs included membership to supposedly liberal groups, using phrases such as "environmental justice" or "social justice," and expressions of dislike or even ambivalence about some administration initiatives, such as warrantless wiretaps.

If Barack Obama and John McCain were truly paying attention, wouldn't rebuilding government -- and restoring national confidence in it -- be a key and beefy section of every one of their stump speechs, interviews and television appearances?

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But it's not too late for one of them to jump all over this like the big, juicy softball it is -- and potentially reap huge support. After all, don't most voters know of some government screwup that affected their life or the life of someone they know, or at least have been affronted by some act of felonious idiocy? The point is not to make political hay out of this, but to see, understand and raise alarms about how abuses, incompetency and pure neglect have put government in genuine peril of not being able to carry out many of its most important duties.

If the presidential candidates haven't been paying close enough attention, fortunately a number of able, smart and nonpartisan people have been. They not only point out some of the many, many specific problems harming government effectiveness and efficiency. Here are just two examples worth paying considerable attention to:

National security expert Anthony Cordesman, who sees a defense and national security apparatus so broken and dysfunctional that it "has no clear or coherent plan, program or budget that reflects the fact that the nation is at war." Cordesman has written an exhaustive brief for elected officials, candidates and anyone concerned about keeping the nation safe that examines every vital aspect of security planning.

Paul Light, a scholar who very well may know more than anyone on earth about how governments are and should be run, is as alarmed about the state of government as a whole as Cordesman is about national security in particular. And his warning is similar -- that the next president will inherit a government close to the breaking point. "Federal employees do not get the resources necessary to do their jobs; they rate their leadership as barely competent at best (and getting worse) and give their hiring and disciplinary processes failing marks," Light wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece.


A clarion call about the disastrous state of government and a reform plan that addresses the problem effectively and soberly will not win an election on its own. But it would demonstrate leadership and determination -- and in a year where most Americans feel the nation has lost its way, those qualities may very well be the real deciding factor when voters enter the polling booth.