The financial collapse of 2008; the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; Hurricane Katrina; the Abu Ghraib Prison abuse in Iraq; the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction following the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the Blackwater killings; the bungled launch of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance portal, HealthCare.gov; the Internal Revenue Service’s politically motivated review of applications for tax-exempt status in the 2012 election cycle; Benghazi; and Edward Snowden’s leak of key government documents that revealed the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. These are the events that have profoundly shaped the United States’ political reality. They caused dramatic drops in the public’s confidence in government institutions as the inadequacies of the country’s leaders were put on display. They forced apologies from government leaders and created political, economic, and philosophic quagmires that continue to influence public opinion, elections, and world events years later. Not every incident had ramifications for the global balance of power, but even the most minor of these events tell a story of government failure.
Government-orchestrated failures have increased throughout the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, according to Paul Light — a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. In a research paper entitled “A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Fix It,” he cataloged and ranked the 41 important and most visible government failures that occurred between 2001 and 2014 as a means to understand: where the government failed, why the government failed, and what can be down to fix the underlying problems. The financial crisis, NSA leak, rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s HealthCare.gov, Benghazi, IRS targeting, and weapons of mass destruction all made the list.
“The Veterans Affairs scandal is a yet another sign that the recent cascade of federal government failures continues to accelerate. Just when one breakdown recedes from the headlines, another pops up, often in a totally unexpected place,” wrote Light in his introduction. “Federal failures have become so common that they are less of a shock to the public than an expectation. The question is no longer if government will fail every few months, but where. And the answer is ‘anywhere at all.’” He contends that government failure was once not so unpredictable and frequent. “Name a significant domestic or international problem that the nation confronted after World War II, and the federal government almost certainly did something about it, and often with great success. Government made impressive progress in addressing some of the most difficult problems of the post-war era.”
Perhaps the most notable of Light’s discoveries is that the number of government failures has increased sequentially throughout the past five administrations. Ronald Reagan’s last two-and-a-half years as president saw four governmental failures, or 1.6 per year; five took place in George H. W. Bush’s four-year term in office, equaling an annual average of 1.2; Bill Clinton’s administration presided over 14 government failures, or 1.8 per year; George W. Bush’s eight years in office saw 25 such failures or 3.1 per year; and Barack Obama’s first five-and-a-half years in office have produced 16, averaging 2.9 per year. Light also found that government errors increase over the course of a president’s term in office — and most of these government failures are the result of omission, not commission.