Government's Greatest Hits

A new survey rates the federal government's most significant accomplishments of the past 50 years.

Looking back from the edge of a new millennium, it is difficult not to be proud of what the federal government has tried to achieve in the past half century. Name a significant domestic or foreign problem, and the federal government made some effort to solve it. If a nation's greatness is measured in part by what its national government succeeds in doing, the United States measures up very well, indeed.

The proof is in the federal statute books. All told, Congress passed 538 major laws between 1944 and 1999. Recently, a Brookings Institution team analyzed those statutes and came up with a list of the federal government's 50 most significant problem-solving endeavors of the last half century. The list includes efforts to reduce discrimination; help veterans readjust to civilian life; balance the federal budget; strengthen the nation's highway system; ensure safe food and drinking water; protect the wilderness; expand foreign markets for U.S. goods; increase assistance to the working poor; and provide financial security in retirement.

Which of these endeavors has been the most successful? To get at the answer to that question, Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted a survey last summer of 450 American history and government professors. Because most history and political science professors are white, male and liberal, the respondents were largely white (90 percent), male (77 percent) and liberal (65 percent). More than 80 percent characterized themselves as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents. The experts were asked to rate each of the 50 endeavors according to three criteria:

  • How important was-or is-the problem addressed by the goal?
  • How difficult was-or is-the goal?
  • How successful have the federal government's actions been?

The survey suggests the federal government mostly picked important and difficult problems to solve-and then solved them, from rebuilding Europe after World War II to cutting the federal budget deficit.

Respondents gave the 50 endeavors an average rating of 3.2 on a four-point scale from "not important" to "very important." On a similar scale from "not difficult" to "very difficult," the endeavors received an average rating of 2.9. Finally, when it came to the issue of the federal government's success in actually achieving each goal, respondents gave the 50 endeavors an average rating of 2.5 on a four-point scale from "not successful" to "very successful."

Successes and Failures

The overall score for government's achievements in the charts on these pages was determined by a tabulation based on six parts success, three parts importance and one part difficulty. The respondents turned out to be nearly unanimous about the federal government's achievements at both the top and bottom of the list.

Even when respondents were divided into categories based on ideology, gender and academic discipline, each group ranked the top three achievements in the same order: rebuilding Europe, expanding the right to vote and opening public accommodations. The same pattern holds at the bottom of the list, where devolving responsibilities to the states is always last.

But there were some differences. Men put containing communism seventh on the list of government's greatest achievements, while women ranked it 38th. (Containing communism ended up 14th overall.) The ratings by historians put helping veterans seventh, reducing the federal deficit at 14th and containing communism 22nd. The ratings by political scientists put reducing the deficit sixth; containing communism eighth; and helping veterans 16th. (Overall, the deficit ended up ninth, veterans 12th). The ratings by liberals put containing communism at 22nd, while the ratings by conservatives put it second, tracking a familiar pattern that distinguished Democrats from Republicans.

Confirming the old adage that "where you stand depends on where you sit," political opposites disagreed on both importance and success. Liberals and Democrats rated expanding voting rights, increasing access to health care for low-income Americans and reducing workplace discrimination as more important problems than conservatives and Republicans did, and considered reducing the budget deficit to be a more successful endeavor. Conversely, conservatives and Republicans rated expanding trade and controlling immigration as more important problems than liberals and Democrats did, and rated ensuring safe food and drinking water, enhancing workplace safety, protecting the wilderness, reducing hunger and improving nutrition, and improving air quality as more successful endeavors.

These disagreements, however, pale in comparison to the enormous consensus regarding the endeavors at the top and bottom of each list. Conservatives moved devolution up a few levels from the bottom on the list of importance, difficulty and success, but not into the top 10; liberals moved containing communism somewhat farther down the list, but not to the bottom. As such, the ratings generally put the lie to the notion that the federal government creates more problems than it solves.

Lessons of Achievement

The general consensus on government's greatest achievements indicates that no one party, Congress or President can be credited with any single achievement. Rather, achievements appear to be the direct product of endurance, consensus and patience.

The list underscores three other lessons:

  • Achievement appears to be firmly rooted in a coherent policy strategy.
  • Achievement appears to reside at least partly in the moral rightness of the cause, whether a belief in human equality, a commitment to world peace and democracy or a determination to honor promises to previous generations.
  • Government has its greatest impact where the private and nonprofit sectors simply will not go.

These lessons echo in the government's greatest failures. The effort to increase the supply of low-income housing, renew poor communities, improve mass transit, reform taxation, control immigration and devolve responsibilities to the states all have suffered from a lack of clarity regarding means and ambiguity regarding ends. Over-identified with one party or the other, over-dependent on one President or another, they have also been battered by intense partisan disagreement, changing economic and social conditions and a notable lack of public support.

Just as one can be awed by what the federal government accomplished over the past half century, one can wonder whether government will ever be so bold again. Are the nation's leaders so worried about losing their jobs that they will not take the risks embedded in the kind of inherently risky projects that reached the top 10? Are Americans so impatient for success that no program, however well-designed and justified, can outlast the early difficulties that face so many innovative efforts? And are the media so addicted to stories of government failure that no endeavor, however noble and well-designed, can survive long enough to achieve results? These questions would not be so troublesome but for the fact that many of the important problems identified in this list still need to be solved.

The Top 50

Respondents to the Brookings Institution survey were asked to rate each of the 50 endeavors on the list in terms of the importance of the problem to be solved, the difficulty in solving it and the federal government's success in meeting the challenge. The overall score for each endeavor was determined by a tabulation based on six parts success, three parts importance and one part difficulty.

For complete results of the survey and more information on the rating system, go to

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