5 of the Worst U.S. Government Failures

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Government-orchestrated failures have increased throughout the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, according to Paul C. Light — a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings Institution. 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. In total, Light pinpointed 41 government failures, ranking them based on the policy missteps, resource limitations, structural (or bureaucratic) failings, inefficient or unqualified leadership, and corrupt or unethical government culture that created them. He also categorized the entries based on whether the errors were in oversight or in operations.

“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.’”


Paul C. Light/Brookings

Read on for the top five government failures on his list.

Note: Light arranged government failures based on how closely the events were followed by the American public, ranking his entries on scores derived from Pew Research Center’s “News Interest Index.” While that system could seemingly lead to imbalance in the list, as it values popularity over any rigorous analysis of how these incidents influenced American politics and world events, the top five entries reflect major events that not only tell a broad story of governmental failure but represent important inflection points in recent history. He also proposed his own solutions.