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.


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1. 9/11 Terrorist Attacks – September 11, 2001

Failure: 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,” Light wrote.

Excluding the 19 hijackers, the attack resulted in the death of 2,977 people, of which a great majority were civilians. More people perished that day than the number who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and it was the highest one-day death toll on American soil since the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. The attack spawned two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have left more than 6,700 Americans dead — and it left a permanent mark on almost every part of American life; from new travel restrictions to the more than ten years of war, to the creation of new government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, to a profound change in the American psyche.

While 9/11 was a unifying event, the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act and massive war spending eventually led to divisions in both Congress and the American electorate. War spending also tightened the budget for domestic programs. The massive increase in government expenditures, and as well as taxes, paved the way way for the Tea Party movement.

In the wake of the attack, Congress set up the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, and its primary finding was that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation had allowed the attacks to occur by not acting more wisely and more aggressively. “What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al-Qaeda plot,” the report concluded. Further, “the most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat.”


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2. Financial Crisis — 2008

Failure: 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,” Light wrote.

In many analyses, the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, which was the fourth largest investment bank in the United States at the time, is often pointed to as the symbolic domino that caused one financial institution after another to begin wobbling, and their collective wobbling put the industry and the economy as a whole in crisis. By the end of the economic downturn, 8.7 million jobs had been lost; public trust in government institutions had taken a huge hit; the collapse of the housing market devastated household finances, caused housing prices to drop by as much as 50 percent in some regions, and left many millions of homeowners underwater; and stocks fell to record lows — with the Dow Jones Industrial Average declining 54 percent from its October 2007 high to a market low of 6,443.27 on March 6, 2009.

Nearly six years have passed since the beginning of the financial crisis that threw the United States economy into 18 months of recession. But economic output in the first-quarter of 2014 slowed to a 2.9 percent annual rate, and a near-record low number of Americans are participating in the labor market, as confidence in the availability of jobs remains shaky, and too many Americans continue to be unemployed. But, even though the first-quarter’s gross domestic product contraction “appears to have resulted mostly from transitory factors” and the labor market is improving “more quickly than anticipated by the [Federal Reserve],” as the central bank’s Chair Janet Yellen noted in her Wednesday testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, the “recovery is not yet complete.” The economy still needs the Federal Reserve’s economic stimulus, according to the central bank’s policy makers.


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3. Hurricane Katrina — 2005

Failure: 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,” Light wrote.

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. But what made that destruction all the more tragic is the inadequacy of the government’s response. Hurricane Katrina left a dark mark on the presidency of George W. Bush. “Katrina showed he is incompetent,” former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean told U.S. News and World Report, several years after the disaster. “Before Katrina, everyone, including America’s friends and enemies, believed if something awful happened in the world, you could call in the Americans and they’d fix it.” In his opinion, the government’s response to the hurricane’s devastation ruined that reputation.

Dean was by no means the only voice to argue that the Bush administration had been slow to respond to the disaster while millions of New Orleans residents were suffering. Images circulated of the president aboard Air Force One, with the destruction visible through the window, and those photographs only reinforced the public’s perceptions that he was detached from the disaster. They became a symbol of his administration’s response to the disaster. He later acknowledged that it was a “huge mistake” to be allowed those photographs taken, noting they made him look “detached and uncaring, no question about it.”

Within weeks of the hurricane touching land, during his tour of the devastated portions of New Orleans, the president’s approval rating had dropped to new lows. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that a majority of Americans disapproved of the way government officials, at all levels, were handling the crisis. Fifty-four percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction at how the Bush administration had responded, while 57 percent said state and local officials should bear responsibility for the missteps.

It is important to remember that a later investigation by Congressional Republicans, placed a majority of the blame on the Bush administration. But it also singled out New Orleans’ then mayor, Ray Nagin, for not ordering an evacuation of the city until less than 24 hours before Katrina hit land.

That misstep was just one of many. Michael Brown — who was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the time of the disaster and later resigned over his handling of the crisis — told graduate students at the Metropolitan College of New York in 2007 that party politics played a role in the government’s decision to take federal control of Louisiana and other areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina. “Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking ‘We had to federalize Louisiana because she’s a white, female Democratic governor and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,” he said, adding that the White House thought they an opportunity to “rub [Governor Kathleen Blanco’s] nose in it.” The Bush administration subsequently denied any political considerations played a role in the federal government’s response.

The Bush administration did refrain from placing the disaster response immediately in the control of the federal government, even when it became clear that Louisiana’s state and local governments were not able to handle the crisis. However, his aides argued that such a response was natural — informed by his experience as the governor of Texas and his belief that natural disaster responses are best left to state and local governments. “For him, it was a question of usurpation of power,” a former senior adviser told U.S. News and World Report. But the fact remains that Bush’s failure to act, while thousands of people went without food or water, unquestionably ruined his image as an effective leader.


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4. Gulf Oil Spill — 2010

Failure: 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,” wrote Light.

It began on April 20, 2010, when an undersea well exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and the millions of barrels of crude that spewed into the ocean, polluting marshes, fisheries, and beaches stretching from Louisiana to Florida and harming local tourism and fishing. In May 2012, BP and the lawyers for the individuals and businesses harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill reached an accord to settled the class action lawsuit. Instead of the $20-billion fund created by BP, the agreement called for the court to administer the compensation payments to those Gulf Coast residents who endured the months-long oil leak that befouled beaches, killed wildlife, and disrupted the economies of their states.

Four years later, scientists are still working to quantify the environmental damages, while the federal district court in New Orleans has yet to making a ruling in the federal government’s civil suit against the oil producer and its partners (Halliburton and Transocean), or determine financial damages the companies must pay. While attempts to ensure BP is adequately punished for whatever degree of negligence led to the oil spill, a June report from the Chemical Safety Board found that a second disastrous offshore oil well explosion is still possible despite the regulatory improvements the company made after the 2010 disaster.

That assessment followed a April 2014 opinion piece in The New York Times, in which policy experts S Elizabeth Birnbaum and Jacqueline Savitz claimed that following the oil spill disaster the Obama administration had taken few steps to prevent similar disasters in future. They argued that additional oil drilling-related problems are likely to happen again, a possibility exacerbated by the expansion of offshore drilling and poor improvements in safety technology.


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5. Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse — 2004

Failure: 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,” Light wrote.

During the Iraq War, from late 2003 through 2004, a small group of soldiers involved in operating American detention facilities and prison camps in Iraq, such as Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib, created a culture of abuse in which inmates were beaten, raped, made to wear hoods, humiliated, and otherwise dehumanized. Eventually, this behavior came to the attention of the federal government, after extremely graphic photographs of the abuse by the soldiers involved were exposed. CBS’ 60 Minutes II broadcast a number of those photographs, making the abuses common knowledge to the American people. Now, a decade after the American public learned about Abu Ghraib — which stands empty, its closure prompted by fears that it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents — those images are synonymous with the dark side of the United States’ “War on Terror.”

“They confined us like sheep,” a newly freed prisoner, Saad Naif, said of the Americans in 2003, according to a report by The Associated Press. “They hit people. They humiliated people.” Yet, the conditions had been described by General Janis Karpinski in a December 2003 interview with the St. Petersburg Times as “living better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that they wouldn’t want to leave.” But the conclusions made in an official government report authored by Major General Antonio M. Taguba carried a strong indictment of the Army prison system. Chronicling the institutional failures, he noted there were numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib.

As GR Mastroianni wrote in a Strategic Studies Institute paper entitled “Looking Back: Understanding Abu Ghraib,” the scandal was “construed as much more than a case of soldier misconduct.” Rather, it was a story “of the inevitable consequences of the [Bush] administration’s misguided approach to interrogation, detainee treatment, and torture, and the plight of a few low-level soldiers fingered as fall guys for those responsible higher up the chain.” While nine U.S. army soldiers were court-martialed and convicted of crimes connected to the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, no commanding officers were charged.

Since those convictions, it has been argued that the Department of Justice under both President Bush and President Obama has showed very little interest in prosecuting those responsible. Bush represented the abuses as the work of a few “bad apples,” as The New York Times editorial board wrote in April of this year, even though the abuse problems were systemic. “It flowed from a culture of permissiveness in the treatment of detainees, encouraged by top Bush administration officials, and based on disrespect for longstanding legal prohibitions against torture and other mistreatment,” the board wrote.

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