It Keeps On Ticking: In the last 50 years, our government has weathered scandal, social crisis and partisan infighting — and managed to attain noble goals in spite of itself

December 24, 2000

If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of partisanship looming over Washington, D.C., it can be found in the fact that some of our government’s most significant feats have been accomplished during periods of profound national turmoil.

That is clearly the message from our new Brookings Institution study of the federal government’s achievements. Name a significant domestic or foreign problem from the past half century, and our government has made some effort to solve it.

Those efforts occurred and endured through some of the most trying moments in American history, including partisanship, scandal and public division that make the past six weeks seem like nirvana. The Korean War, Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, Iran-Contra scandal and the Clinton impeachment were not enough to forestall progress. It is hard to see how a little delay in settling the 2000 presidential election or the bound-to-be-rocky months of transition ahead will keep the hits from coming.

If a nation’s greatness is measured, in part, by what government tries in good times and bad, America measures up very well.

The proof is in the federal statute books, which contain more than 500 major laws passed since World War II. Having emerged victorious from economic crisis and war, Congress called upon the federal government to tackle an agenda worthy of the world’s greatest democracy, passing new laws to expand voting rights at home, advance human rights abroad, increase home ownership, improve air and water quality, control nuclear arms, promote equal access to public accommodations, protect endangered species, reduce hunger, rebuild Europe, reduce workplace discrimination, strengthen the nation’s highway system and build the world’s strongest defense.

Try as one might, it is difficult to give any single president, party or congressional composition primary credit for launching and maintaining more than a handful of these endeavors. Indeed, only a few of the government’s most noteworthy accomplishments can be traced to unified party control of Congress and the presidency. Divided government is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a nation.

It is one thing to marvel at what the federal government tried to do, and quite another to ask whether government actually succeeded in its endeavors.

To answer this question, we surveyed 450 American history and government professors last summer. They were asked to rate the federal government’s greatest accomplishments from a list that was assembled by looking for common goals among the hundreds of major laws passed by Congress since the end of World War II. Instead of asking the professors to rate individual laws such as Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, the Polio Vaccination Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act, the survey asked each respondent to rate the importance, degree of difficulty and ultimate success of the broader governmental goals these individual laws were designed to achieve, such as providing health care to the elderly, expanding voting rights, reducing disease or ending workplace discrimination.

Because the final sample of 230 historians and 220 political scientists was drawn from academe, it hardly represents the American public as a whole. By definition, the professors were highly educated. They were also heavily weighted toward white males, Democrats and liberals. But while a different group of Americans might have come up with a different set of ratings, this sample offers an important glimpse of how future generations will judge the greatest achievements of the late 20th century, if only because these are the professors who will be doing the interpretation through their teaching and research.

According to these professors, the federal government clearly aimed high, mostly choosing important, tough problems to solve, often with great success.

Expanding the right to vote was rated by 89 percent of the professors as a very important problem to solve, followed by rebuilding Europe after World War II (80 percent) and increasing access to health care for the elderly (78 percent).

In terms of the difficulty of the goals it pursues, the federal government took on some of the toughest problems in the world, according to the study. Advancing human rights was rated by 66 percent of the professors as a very difficult problem to solve, followed by strengthening arms control (65 percent) and reducing workplace discrimination (53 percent).

Not all of the federal government’s work was so highly rated, however. Devolving responsibilities to the states—through no-strings-attached block grants, federal revenue sharing, protection from unfunded mandates and welfare reform, for example—was rated by just 8 percent of the professors as a very important problem to be solved, followed by the effort to increase market competition through deregulation (13 percent) and controlling immigration (15 percent). Similarly, only 4 percent said strengthening the nation’s highway system and expanding home ownership were very difficult tasks for government, followed by helping veterans readjust to civilian life (7 percent), if only because solving these kinds of problems is primarily a function of spending more money rather than creating new knowledge or changing human behavior.

Moreover, there were disagreements among the professors. Male professors were more likely to rate the effort to rebuild Europe after World War II as a more important problem than female professors, and males also viewed expanding the right to vote, promoting equal access to public accommodations, containing communism and reducing the budget deficit as more successful endeavors.

In contrast, female professors saw expanding the right to vote, reducing hunger, addressing toxic waste and improving air quality as more important problems than men, but viewed all four as less successful than male professors.

Similarly, liberal professors said that voting rights, health care of low- income Americans and workplace discrimination were more important problems than their conservative peers, while conservatives rated trade and immigration as more important problems than liberals. Interestingly, conservatives were also more likely than liberals to say that the federal government has been more successful protecting food and drinking water, improving workplace safety, protecting the wilderness, reducing hunger and improving air quality, in large part because they think the federal government has gone far enough on those endeavors.

Despite these disagreements, the ratings clearly put the lie to the conventional wisdom that the federal government creates more problems than its solves. To the contrary, the ratings suggest that the federal government is fully capable of tackling important and difficult problems—and succeeding.

Achievement involves more than just success. After all, government is more likely to succeed if it picks easy, trivial problems to solve. On the notion that government should get extra credit for tackling tough, important problems, we calculated its greatest achievements by adding six parts success to three parts importance and one part difficulty. Using this scoring method, rebuilding Europe, expanding the right to vote, promoting equal access to public accommodations, reducing disease and reducing workplace discrimination emerged as the federal government’s greatest achievements of the past half- century. These top five ratings did not vary, regardless of the political ideology, gender or academic discipline of the professor involved.

The list of government’s top achievements shows the impact of bipartisanship. Even Medicare, which was a signature accomplishment of the Great Society, and the Marshall Plan, which centered on a burst of legislation during the Truman administration, had antecedents in earlier Congresses and administrations. Achievement, the study suggests, is very much a product of endurance, patience and bipartisanship.

Achievement is also firmly rooted in the courage to act, whether that courage springs from a belief in human equality, a commitment to world peace and democracy or a vow to honor promises to previous generations. No one at the start of the civil rights movement could promise that expanding the right to vote, opening public accommodations or ending workplace discrimination would eventually succeed. But those elected to public office had the courage to take the first steps toward success.

Moreover, it is impossible to imagine the private sector taking the lead in rebuilding Europe or the nonprofit sector massing the capital to build the interstate highway system. In this era of promises to create smaller, more limited government, it is useful to remember that the federal government appears to do best when it exercises its sovereignty to take big risks that no other actor could ever imagine taking.

These lessons are echoed in the federal government’s greatest failures. The effort to increase the supply of low-income housing, renew poor communities, improve mass transit, reform taxes, control immigration and devolve responsibilities to the states all have suffered from a lack of consensus about the ends, and an unwillingness to put enough resources into the means. These endeavors were over-identified with a single party, highly dependent on the president or Congress to propel action and battered by intense partisan disagreement, changing economic and social conditions, and a notable lack of public support.

Even as we look to the achievements of the past, one can also ask whether government will ever be so bold again. Are government’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 list of the Brookings study? 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 if the federal government didn’t still have so many problems to solve. If the nation increases the price of endeavor, converting the marathon of achievement into little more than a series of exhausting wind sprints, the list of government’s greatest achievements of the next half century will be meager indeed. If there is to be a silver lining in the coming months, it is one that can only be found with the courage to act.


  1. Rebuilding Europe after World War II
  2. Expanding the right to vote
  3. Promoting equal access to public accommodations
  4. Reducing disease
  5. Reducing workplace discrimination
  6. Ensuring safe food and drinking water
  7. Strengthening the nation’s highway system
  8. Increasing access to health care for older Americans
  9. Reducing the federal budget deficit
  10. Promoting financial security in retirement.


  1. Devolving responsibility to the states
  2. Controlling immigration
  3. Reforming taxes
  4. Improving mass transportation
  5. Developing and renewing impoverished communities
  6. Increasing the supply of low-income housing
  7. Increasing market competition through deregulation
  8. Expanding job training and placement
  9. Reforming welfare
  10. Improving government performance