Government on the Brink

If you consider the president to be the CEO of government and Congress its board of directors, it's certainly informative to look at how they've chosen to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities this year.

  • First there was the fight over fiscal 2011 appropriations, which should have been decided before the year even began. Instead, the debate ran several months into 2011, and as everyone painfully remembers, resulted in a very-near shutdown of government in April.
  • Then lawmakers moved on to the debt limit debacle, once again taking government to the brink before agreeing to a last-minute deal that essentially kicked the can down the road and put the tough decisions on spending cuts in the hands of a congressional super-committee.
  • On the heels of that near-breakdown came the debate over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, resulting in an actual partial shutdown of that agency. When the country's political leadership finally addressed the issue in early August, they managed to come up with only the shortest of short-term solutions.
  • In the meantime, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was forced to shift funds around to come up with enough money to cover the response to Hurricane Irene, touching off a fresh political battle over replenishing the disaster relief fund.
  • Next on the agenda is transportation. Without an extension of surface transportation funding, the White House said last week, 4,000 workers could be furloughed, and $1 billion in funding lost within 10 days after the money runs out.
  • Speaking of running out of money, the Postal Service is just weeks away from financial collapse. The administration has promised to come up with a plan to address the crisis, but postal officials say what they really need is the flexibility to operate their organization like the business it's supposed to be.

All of this adds up to a failure of epic proportions. At virtually every opportunity, those responsible for overseeing government operations have defaulted on their responsibility to make tough decisions, ensure an appropriate level of funding, and provide long-term stability. This makes it extremely difficult for career federal executives to run day-to-day operations, not to mention make and execute plans for the future.

This, in turn, leads to an ever-deepening loss of faith in government as an institution.

Right now, it's hard to be optimistic that our political leaders will develop the backbone to do what needs to be done to give federal agencies a chance to succeed. There is a path forward, and we'll be exploring it in a package of stories in the (freshly redesigned) Government Executive in October. But it won't be easy, and it will require more in the way of leadership than the country has been getting of late.