News Release

New Book Celebrates Federal Government’s Top Accomplishments, Urges Confidence in Future Endeavors

August 6, 2002

As the federal government approaches the first anniversary of the war on terrorism, a new book by Paul C. Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, shows that the federal government has taken on other tough problems over the past fifty years and succeeded.

In Government’s Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security, Light provides an account of the top twenty-five of the federal government’s fifty greatest post-World War II achievements, offering a historical framework with which to gauge the success and difficulty of current federal government efforts.

“If Americans want to know whether the federal government will succeed in the war on terrorism or in establishing homeland security, they need only look back to government’s greatest achievements of the past half century,” states Light. “No one should doubt the federal government when it decides to tackle tough, important problems.”

Based on a survey of political scientists and historians, Government’s Greatest Achievements reveals that successful government endeavors are the product of political endurance, consensus, and patience. Federal government achievements are primarily the result of sustained bipartisan and bi-institutional cooperation between the Congress and the presidency, rather than victories achieved by one party or one branch of government.

Light is confident that the federal government’s past successes in addressing tough problems will lead to successful future endeavors, particularly in the creation of homeland security policy.

“To the extent a nation’s greatness is measured by what its government has accomplished through good times and bad, Americans can have great confidence that the federal government will succeed in strengthening homeland defense,” he says.

Priority setting for the future is determined equally by addressing past failures and protecting past achievements, the new book suggests. Based on responses both before and after September 11, scholars ranked the top five governmental priorities for the next fifty years as follows: Increase arms control and disarmament, increase health care access for low-income families, expand and protect the right to vote, promote financial security in retirement, and provide assistance for the working poor.

Of the twenty-five federal government achievements of the past fifty years profiled in the book, the top ten are:

1. Rebuilding Europe After World War II. This endeavor was anchored in the Marshall Plan, and is the only non-current endeavor on the list.

2. Expanding the Right to Vote. Ten statutes comprise this effort to protect and expand the right to vote. Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the flagship, the endeavor also includes three extensions and two constitutional amendments.

3. Promoting Equal Access to Public Accommodations. This three-statute endeavor originates in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, expands with the Open Housing Act of 1968, and is capped with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

4. Reducing Disease. The Polio Vaccination Act of 1955 is the starting point for the most eclectic group of statutes on the list. Alongside vaccination assistance, the effort to reduce disease includes targeted research, bans on smoking, and strengthening the National Institutes of Health.

5. Reducing Workplace Discrimination. Seven statutes make up this effort to prohibit workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability includes seven pieces of legislation, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

6. Ensuring Safe Food and Drinking Water. Nine statutes comprise this long-running bipartisan effort.

7. Strengthening the Nation’s Highway System. Eight statutes underpin the ongoing federal effort to augment the national highway system, most notably the original 1956 Interstate Highway Act.

8. Increasing Older Americans’ Access to Health Care. Medicare is the flagship of this highly concentrated three-statute endeavor. This is the only endeavor on the list that involved a single breakthrough statute.

9. Reducing the Federal Budget Deficit. Six statutes fall within the effort to balance the federal budget through caps, cuts, and tax increases. Launched in the mid-1980s as budget deficits swelled, this is the most recent endeavor on the top ten list.

10. Promoting Financial Security in Retirement. Twenty-one statutes comprise the effort to reduce poverty among the elderly.

For interview requests with Paul C. Light, author of the book and director of the Center for Public Service, contact Gina Russo at 202/797-6405 or [email protected]. An extensive web companion to the book, which includes the entire list, survey and report, in addition to lectures, photos, and interactive features, can be viewed at

Government’s Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security
Paul C. Light
Publication: September 1, 2002
Brookings Institution Press
6″x9″, 241 pp.
31 b/w photographs
cloth, 0-8157-0604-9, $19.95

About Brookings

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to conduct in-depth, nonpartisan research to improve policy and governance at local, national, and global levels.