Government’s Next Great Achievements

March 1, 2002

Americans must be wondering whether homeland defense and the war on terrorism will be the government’s sole focus for the next half century.

Looking back at the last 50 years of the 20th century, Americans can be justifiably proud of what the federal government tried to accomplish. But today, the world is a much colder place. The U.S. economy has stalled, partisanship is on the rise, a war on terrorism is under way, and the events of Sept. 11 continue to cast a long shadow on the national consciousness.

If the past is prologue, however, many of the federal government’s next greatest achievements will be built around protecting and expanding its greatest achievements of the past. Even as it adjusts to the Sept. 11 crisis, the federal government has a broader agenda that is mostly unchanged since the attacks on New York City and Washington.

At least for the nation’s leading economists, historians, political scientists and sociologists, the federal government’s new priorities will involve a mix of past gains and defeats, as well as new-found worries about terrorism. According to a survey of 550 academics conducted from July to October 2001 on behalf of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service, the federal government’s top 10 priorities for the future are clear:

  • 1. Increase arms control and disarmament (65 percent said this should be a top priority).
    2. Increase health care access for low-income Americans (59 percent).
    3. Expand and protect the right to vote (53 percent).
    4. Promote financial security in retirement (51 percent).
    5. Provide assistance for the working poor (47 percent).
    6-7 (tie) Improve air quality (43 percent).
    Increase health care access for older Americans (43 percent).
    8. Improve elementary and secondary education (41 percent).
    9. Reduce workplace discrimination (39 percent).
    10.Strengthen the national defense (36 percent).

The following issues came in last:

  • Stabilize agricultural prices (2 percent).
  • Expand home ownership (4 percent).
  • Support veterans readjustment and training (5 percent).
  • Promote space exploration (5 percent).
  • Increase market competition (6 percent).
  • Reduce illegal drug use (6 percent).
  • Devolve responsibilities to the states (8 percent).
  • Strengthen the nation’s highway system(10 percent).
  • Help victims of disaster (10 percent).
  • Improve government performance (13 percent).
  • Reduce dependency among welfare recipients (13 percent).

The lists offer three lessons about setting priorities. First, federal achievement in the past is the basis for both priorities and uninterest in the future. The fact that government has done so well on financial security for retirement, expanding the right to vote, providing health care access for the elderly, and improving air quality is no reason to stop those endeavors now.

Second, these scholars believe that the federal government has important work to do in addressing some of its most notable failures. Expanding access to health care for low-income Americans was rated No. 34 last year on Brookings’ list of government’s greatest achievements of the past half century, in large part because that issue was difficult to solve.

Third, Sept. 11 had a clear impact on the list of priorities. The academics who completed the survey after Sept. 11 were more likely to place a higher priority on both arms control (69 percent after Sept. 11 versus 56 percent before) and access to health care for low-income Americans (61 percent versus 52 percent), probably because of heightened concerns about personal safety. Those who responded after Sept. 11 made terrorism-related endeavors a higher priority. They said that government should:

  • Strengthen the nation’s airways system (37 percent after Sept. 11 versus 16 percent before).
  • Ensure an adequate energy supply (32 percent versus 20 percent).
  • Enhance the nation’s health care infra structure (25 percent versus 13 percent).
  • Increase the stability of financial markets (20 percent versus 13 percent
  • Enhance workplace safety (20 percent versus 11 percent)
  • Reduce crime (18 percent versus 8 percent).

Whether these priorities will become government’s greatest endeavors and achievements depends largely on which of two different futures becomes reality.

The first future is one in which the nation’s leaders are able to maintain the bipartisan spirit that marks so much of government’s past achievement, while the second is one in which Congress and Presidents worry so much about their reelection and popularity that they demand immediate success or none at all.

It is not yet clear which future will emerge from the current crisis. Given this country’s past record of success through periods of civil unrest, domestic terrorism, international anxiety and its own political instability, it is hard to bet against the federal government. Where there is a will, there has always been a way.