Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century

Paul C. Light

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 these past fifty years. Name a significant domestic or foreign problem over the past half century and the federal government made some effort to solve it, sometimes through massive new programs such as Medicare and Apollo, other times through a string of smaller initiatives to address enduring problems such as disease and poverty. If a nation’s greatness is measured in part by the kinds of problems it asks its government to solve, the United States measures up very well, indeed.

The proof is in the federal statutes. All totaled, Congress passed more than 500 major laws between 1944 and 1999 to improve the quality of life in the nation and world. Judged not as individual programs but as part of larger endeavors, these statutes speak to the enormous range of federal engagement since World War II. Having emerged victorious from both the war and the Great Depression, Congress called upon the federal government to tackle a bold agenda worthy of the world’s greatest democracy, and provided the statutory authority to act. Convinced that government could do great things, the nation asked the federal government to do just that.

Government’s Greatest Endeavors

This report—based on survey responses from 450 history and political science professors—suggests that the federal government did more than aim high, however. It also suggests that the federal government often succeeded in changing the nation and the world. Although many Americans still believe that the federal government creates more problems than it solves, this report suggests that government deserves more credit than it receives.

This Reform Watch does not address whether Congress should have asked government to undertake the endeavors discussed below, nor whether the federal government should have given greater energy to fewer priorities. It is first and foremost a report about what the federal government actually sought to accomplish between 1944 and 1999, and therefore about what government did, not what it should or should not have done. Simply asked, what did the federal government try to do, and what did it achieve?

What the Federal Government Did

The footprints of federal endeavor can be found in a host of accessible documents, including the Federal Register, Catalog of Domestic Assistance, the Budget of the United States, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, United States Code, Code of Federal Regulations, and the U.S. Constitution. Because almost all tracks lead back to Congress, this report is based on an analysis of major laws passed by Congress since the end of World War II. Not only are the major laws easy to identify through public sources such as the Congressional Quarterly Almanac, they authorize much of the activity that occurs elsewhere in government, most notably by setting budget and regulatory priorities.

Building upon previous research by congressional scholars such as Yale University’s David Mayhew, this project identified 538 major statutes as a starting point for building the list of greatest endeavors. Selected on the basis of their significance, visibility, and/or precedent-setting nature, the laws run the gamut of legislative activity, from the creation of new programs and government agencies to the passage of constitutional amendments and ratification of foreign treaties, and cover virtually all areas of federal endeavor, from child health care to economic deregulation, food and water safety to national defense.

After validating the list against other inventories of major statutes from the era, including Mayhew’s list of more than 300 major laws and my own list of more than 150 management reforms, the 538 statutes were sorted into sixteen policy areas: agriculture, arts and historic preservation, civil rights, crime, the economy, education, health, housing and urban development, foreign policy and defense, government performance, income security, natural resources and energy, safety, science and technology, trade, and transportation.

Once divided by area, the statutes were sorted again based on the specific problem to be solved. Of the 27 statutes dealing with civil rights, for example, three focused on discrimination in public accommodations, seven on discrimination in the workplace, and ten on barriers to voting rights. Of the 81 statutes dealing with energy and natural resources, six focused on endangered species, eight on hazardous waste, 12 on wilderness protection, and 14 on the nation’s energy supply. The result of this second sorting was an initial list of the federal government’s 67 major endeavors of the past half century.

That list was further winnowed to the final 50 based on the level of effort involved in each of the endeavors. This is not to suggest that the 17 endeavors cut from the list were unimportant. They included ending discrimination in the armed services, providing help to the victims of natural and man-made disasters, promoting the arts, developing the nation’s river valleys, and reforming the federal campaign finance system. Important though these endeavors are, they earned less attention from the federal government than the 50 items that made the final inventory. (See Figure 3 [PDF] for summaries of the 50 endeavors.

All but a handful of the 50 endeavors involve tight collections of laws organized around a consistent strategy for addressing a focused problem such as crime, water quality, or arms control and disarmament. Hence, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fits naturally with the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 in the effort to end workplace discrimination; the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and its 1970, 1984, and 1994 amendments fit tightly with the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 in the effort to reduce crime; the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1945 fits well with the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the Trade and Tariff Act of 1984, and the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993 in the effort to expand foreign markets for U.S. goods.

Some endeavors will still strike readers as overly broad, however, whether because they involve such eclectic collections of individual statutes or a more diffuse problem. The effort to improve mass transportation includes a mix of statutes covering everything from the creation of Amtrak to urban mass transit and light rail, the effort to control immigration involves four statutes that share little beyond the word “immigration” in their title, and the effort to reduce disease combines the Polio Vaccination Assistance Act of 1955 with the National Cancer Act of 1971 and a variety of medical research bills.

Unfortunately, splitting these endeavors would have added more items to an already exhaustive survey, which, in turn, would mean further demands on the individuals who would be asked to do the rating. The result would be a lower response rate and weaker results. Moreover, it is reasonable to ask whether the mix of strange-bedfellow statutes in efforts to improve mass transportation or control immigration is an indicator of confusion in either defining the problem to be solved or creating an effective strategy for achieving results. Whereas efforts to end discrimination or expand markets shared a common strategy, the effort to control immigration focused on a mix of contradictory goals that may help explain its relatively low success rating.

Lessons of Endeavor


The list of government’s 50 greatest endeavors is best viewed as the product of a good-faith effort to identify the problems that the federal government tried hardest to solve over the past half century. As such, the list offers three initial lessons about how the federal government has sought to achieve results. (See Figure 1 for the complete list of mean scores by importance, difficulty, and success, and the final summary scores that determined the top ten list.)

Figure 1: Sums to Achievement
  Overall Mean Success Mean Importance Mean Difficulty Mean
1. Rebuild Europe After World War II 3.71 3.79 3.74 3.12
2. Expand the Right to Vote 3.53 3.48 3.83 2.87
3. Promote Equal Access to Public Accommodations 3.32 3.16 3.70 3.14
4. Reduce Disease 3.11 2.91 3.58 2.90
5. Reduce Workplace Discrimination 3.09 2.73 3.72 3.39
6. Ensure Safe Food and Drinking Water 3.07 2.81 3.68 2.78
7. Strengthen the Nation’s Highway System 3.04 3.24 2.98 2.04
8. Increase Older Americans’ Access to Health Care 3.03 2.79 3.62 2.71
9. Reduce the Federal Budget Deficit 3.01 2.93 3.09 3.25
10. Promote Financial Security in Retirement 2.99 2.80 3.49 2.64
11. Improve Water Quality 2.99 2.64 3.68 3.05
12. Support Veterans’ Readjustment and Training 2.97 3.00 3.14 2.27
13. Promote Scientific and Technological Research 2.97 2.88 3.34 2.33
14. Contain Communism 2.95 2.97 2.79 3.30
15. Improve Air Quality 2.93 2.51 3.67 3.20
16. Enhance Workplace Safety 2.93 2.67 3.46 2.90
17. Strengthen the National Defense 2.91 3.00 2.88 2.40
18. Reduce Hunger and Improve Nutrition 2.90 2.58 3.64 2.61
19. Increase Access to Post-Secondary Education 2.89 2.72 3.40 2.31
20. Enhance Consumer Protection 2.88 2.66 3.35 2.81
21. Expand Foreign Markets for U.S. Goods 2.86 2.78 2.96 2.97
22. Increase the Stability of Financial Institutions and Markets 2.84 2.71 3.11 2.79
23. Increase Arms Control and Disarmament 2.84 2.29 3.70 3.55
24. Protect the Wilderness 2.79 2.53 3.33 2.70
25. Promote Space Exploration 2.76 2.84 2.51 3.00
26. Protect Endangered Species 2.75 2.54 3.10 2.90
27. Reduce Exposure to Hazardous Waste 2.72 2.25 3.53 3.09
28. Enhance the Nation’s Health Care Infrastructure 2.70 2.40 3.30 2.68
29. Maintain Stability in the Persian Gulf 2.70 2.67 2.75 2.71
30. Expand Home Ownership 2.69 2.74 2.75 2.15
31. Increase International Economic Development 2.68 2.30 3.26 3.20
32. Ensure an Adequate Energy Supply 2.67 2.20 3.50 3.00
33. Strengthen the Nation’s Airways System 2.66 2.36 3.31 2.53
34. Increase Low-Income Families’ Access to Health Care 2.64 2.04 3.73 2.97
35. Improve Elementary and Secondary Education 2.62 2.03 3.66 3.07
36. Reduce Crime 2.61 2.19 3.24 3.24
37. Advance Human Rights and Provide Humanitarian Relief 2.60 1.99 3.47 3.56
38. Make Government More Transparent to the Public 2.56 2.19 3.21 2.80
39. Stabilize Agricultural Prices 2.55 2.49 2.67 2.53
40. Provide Assistance for the Working Poor 2.55 2.02 3.52 2.80
41. Improve Government Performance 2.47 2.13 2.99 2.95
42. Reform Welfare 2.47 2.24 2.94 3.16
43. Expand Job Training and Placement 2.46 2.12 3.05 2.74
44. Increase Market Competition 2.45 2.51 2.34 2.31
45. Increase the Supply of Low-Income Housing 2.36 1.79 3.33 2.85
46. Develop and Renew Impoverished Communities 2.33 1.67 3.33 3.37
47. Improve Mass Transportation 2.30 1.56 3.48 3.14
48. Reform Taxes 2.27 2.24 2.29 2.35
49. Control Immigration 2.22 2.02 2.37 2.97
50. Devolve Responsibility to the States 2.11 2.23 1.85 2.15
Mean scores are rounded to two decimal points. The overall score is tabulated using six parts success, three parts importance, and one part difficulty.
Back to text (“These lessons are echoed…”)

First, despite the prevailing scholarly focus on breakthrough statutes such as Medicare or welfare reform, most of government’s greatest endeavors involved a relatively large number of statutes passed over a relatively long period of time. Only eight of the 50 endeavors involved fewer than three major statutes: promoting equal access to public accommodations, increasing access to health care for older Americans, enhancing workplace safety, devolving responsibilities to the states, increasing access to health care for low-income families, reforming welfare, reforming taxes, and maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf.

Remove these tightly focused endeavors from the list, and there are approximately nine statutes per endeavor. Promoting financial security in retirement involved the largest number of individual statutes at 21, followed by stabilizing agricultural price supports at 19, increasing assistance to the working poor at 15, increasing the supply of low-income housing, ensuring an adequate energy supply, and improving mass transportation all at 14. Almost by definition, great endeavors demand great endurance. It is a lesson often forgotten in the headlines about the latest legislative intrigue.

Second, it is difficult to give any single president, party, or Congress the primary credit for launching and maintaining more than a handful of the endeavors. Only nine of the endeavors can be credited primarily to Democratic presidents, and just five can be credited to Republican presidents. The rest span Democratic and Republican administrations. As a result, even though Democrats controlled Congress for the vast majority of the past fifty years, only six can be tied to unified party control of government. Almost by definition, government’s greatest endeavors reflect a stunning level of bipartisan commitment, whether reflected in repeated raises in the minimum wage or the ongoing effort to contain communism. Great endeavors appear to require equally great consensus.

Third, government’s greatest endeavors involved a mix of policy strategies. Twenty-six of the 50 endeavors focused primarily on federal spending as a policy tool, including programs to provide health care to the elderly, increase home ownership, and stabilize agricultural prices. Another 20 focused primarily on regulatory strategies, including programs to improve air and water quality, end workplace discrimination, and make government more transparent to the public. The final four involved a mix of both spending and regulation. Additionally, only 13 of the 50 involved targeted benefits for a specific group of Americans such as the elderly, poor, veterans, or racial minorities. The rest diffused benefits across society more generally. Great endeavors do not appear to require any particular strategies, but do appear to thrive on wide distribution of impacts.

The Foundations of Achievement

Some of the federal government’s 50 greatest endeavors clearly produced the intended results, whether measured through a vibrant European economic community or an undeniable decline in poverty among the elderly. Others produced great disappointment, whether measured by persistent poverty among children or growing urban sprawl. Still others are very much works in progress.

From a research perspective, it is one thing to develop a list of government’s greatest endeavors by sorting known legislative statutes, and quite another to draw conclusions about whether those endeavors involved important and difficult problems, and were ultimately successful. Breadth being the enemy of expertise, this project had to rely on the opinions of others to determine whether the endeavors were significant and successful.

Measuring Achievement

This project sought to measure the government’s success through a mail survey of 1,039 college and university professors. Selected for their interest in twentieth century American history or American government, these members of the American Historical Association and American Political Science Association were seen as the most likely to have both the training and confidence to rate all 50 endeavors on the three core measures of achievement: (1) the importance of the problem to be solved, (2) the difficulty of the problem to be solved, and (3) the federal government’s success in actually solving the problem (see figures 2a, 2b, 2c in the report’s pdf).

Of the 1,039 professors contacted in the summer of 2000, 450 returned completed questionnaires. Given the length and difficulty of the 150-item questionnaire, the final response rate of 43 percent can be considered a healthy total. Results from the survey have a margin of error of ±5 percent, meaning that the true result among all historians and political scientists could vary by 5 percentage points in either direction of the reported answers. The survey was administered and tabulated by Princeton Survey Research Associates, a nationally recognized opinion research firm.

Because the final sample of 230 historians and 220 political scientists was drawn from America’s college and university faculties, it is hardly representative of the American public as a whole. The respondents are highly educated—more than half have tenure at their college or university. Moreover, because most American government and history professors are white and male, the final sample of respondents is also heavily weighted toward whites (90 percent), males (77 percent), liberals (65 percent), and Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (82 percent).

Much as one might have preferred a more balanced sample, these respondents mirror the current face of the American professorate. They also represent the dominant views of just what constitutes importance, difficulty, and success in America’s college and university classrooms. As such, this sample offers an important glimpse of how future generations will judge the greatest achievements of the twentieth century, if only because most of these respondents will be doing the teaching.

Aiming High, Trying Hard

Summarized in a single sentence, the survey suggests that the federal government mostly picked important and difficult problems to solve, and often had success in doing so.

To the extent that government is measured by its choice of important problems to be solved, the federal government clearly aimed high. Asked to rate the importance of the problem to be solved by each goal, respondents gave the 50 endeavors an average rating of 3.2 on a four-point scale ranging from not important to very important. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents rated voting rights as a very important problem, followed by rebuilding Europe after World War II at 80 percent, improving access to health care for low-income Americans at 78 percent, and ending workplace discrimination, promoting equal access to public accommodations, and increasing arms control and nuclear disarmament all at 78 percent.

To the extent that government is also measured by its willingness to tackle difficult problems, the federal government most certainly picked its share of tough issues. Asked to rate the difficulty of the problem to be solved by each goal, respondents gave the 50 endeavors an average rating of 2.9 on a four-point scale ranging from not difficult to very difficult. Sixty-six percent of the respondents rated advancing human rights and humanitarian relief as a very difficult problem, followed by arms control and disarmament at 65 percent, reducing workplace discrimination at 53 percent, renewing impoverished communities at 52 percent, and containing communism at 50 percent.

Finally, to the extent that government is measured by its ability to achieve its goals, the federal government earned mostly favorable marks. Asked to rate 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 ranging from not successful to very successful. Eighty-two percent of the respondents rated rebuilding Europe as a very successful endeavor, followed by expanding the right to vote at 61 percent, improving the nation’s highway system at 40 percent, containing communism at 36 percent, and promoting equal access to public accommodations at 34 percent.


Get daily updates from Brookings