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Government’s Greatest Priorities of the Next Half Century

No one can be sure what the next fifty years will hold in terms of government achievement, nor can anyone be sure just what the federal government will be doing fifty years from now. The government will almost certainly launch entirely new endeavors, some of which will be driven by scientific breakthroughs already within reach, others from tragedies not yet imagined. Just as the events of September 11 spawned an entirely new effort to protect homeland security, some future tragedy may also spark a new government initiative.

If the past is prologue, however, government will continue working on many of its greatest endeavors of the past fifty years. The federal government has been working to defend the nation, help veterans readjust, protect workers, build roads, enhance transportation, promote economic growth, and support the poor since the founding of the Republic. It is hardly likely to stop now.

Federal efforts over the past fifty years clearly made their mark on the nation and the world. To the extent a society is measured by what it asks its government to do, America can be proud, indeed. According to last year’s Center for Public Service report on government’s greatest achievements, the federal government spent the past half century tackling a series of tough, important problems, and often succeeded beyond expectations. No one was sure that the federal government could conquer life threatening diseases such as polio and tuberculosis, or that it could send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth, but it succeeded at both. No one was sure the federal government could make progress on reducing discrimination, expanding the right to vote, or making a high school education a universal expectation, but it made progress on all fronts.

Setting Priorities for the Next Half Century

Not every government endeavor has produced results. At least some of the government’s greatest priorities of the next fifty years can be found in its greatest disappointments of the past. Having fallen short on important, tough problems such as advancing human rights abroad and reducing nuclear arms, the federal government already has plenty to do honoring promises it has already made.

Yet setting priorities is not just about addressing past failures. It is also about protecting past achievements. It could be, for example, that advancing human rights abroad would cost so much in time, energy, and federal dollars that the federal government would be unable to maintain the same level of support for expanding voting rights, improving water quality, or promoting financial security in retirement. Moreover, government achievement can ebb and flow with changing economic, social, and political circumstances, including events such as September 11, which heightened the importance of a number of endeavors related to terrorism; the Florida election impasse, which put renewed emphasis on the right to vote; or the anthrax scare, which brought immediate attention to the nation’s effort to reduce and prevent disease. Achievement also changes with sudden and unexpected breakthroughs, such as President Bush’s recent decision to cut U.S. long-range nuclear weapons. Moreover, because perseverance is one source of achievement, government endeavors should become more successful with the mere passage of time. As Brookings scholar Ron Haskins argues, the 1996 welfare reform is looking more successful with each passing year. Poverty rates among all demographic groups declined for the seventh year in a row in 2000—with the child poverty rate reaching its lowest level since 1976—largely because welfare recipients were required to work under the 1996 reforms.

Rating Priorities

The first step in rating government’s greatest priorities of the future is to start with a list of possible priorities based on the federal government’s greatest endeavors of the present. Here, the term “greatest” does not mean either “most successful,” or “most important,” or even “most appropriate.” Rather, the federal government’s greatest endeavors of the present are the ones in which the government has made the greatest investment.

The tracks of those endeavors can be identified in the federal budget, which shows how much Congress and the president have spent on solving big problems such as improving access to health care for older Americans. They can also be found in the Code of Federal Regulations, which tracks how much administrative energy is being devoted to problems such as reducing workplace discrimination or improving air quality, or the federal organization chart, which shows how many agencies are engaged in tackling problems such as urban poverty or national security.

At least for the Center for Public Service’s Government Endeavors Project, the easiest way to identify the federal government’s greatest endeavors is to look to the federal statute books, which contain thousands of laws enacted over the past half century to address virtually every foreign and domestic problem imaginable. By using the Congressional Quarterly Almanac to determine which of those laws were major, we compared those laws with other lists of major laws, such as David Mayhew’s inventory in Divided We Govern. We then divided the roughly 540 major laws that emerged from that analysis by subject matter and re-combined them by the problem to be solved. This project generated a list of the federal government’s fifty most intensive, current endeavors. (See the complete list. [PDF])

Homeland defense was not on this list when the project was designed last spring, and so illustrates the role of crisis in setting new priorities. This is not to suggest that terrorism was not on the federal agenda before September 11. The United States most certainly knew about Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network before September 11, while Congress and the president had been warned by the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century that “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” However, no one could have anticipated the extraordinary sophistication and cruelty involved in the New York and Washington attacks, nor the extraordinary increase in federal action that would be required by the new war on terrorism.

With this list of potential priorities in hand, a combined sample of academics was drawn from among the 15,000 members of the American Historical Association, the 13,500 members of the American Political Science Association, the 13,000 members of the American Sociological Association, and the 22,000 members of the American Economic Association. The result was a list of 2,004 academics who specialize in either modern American history, American government, social policy, or public policy.

Contacted by mail in July 2001, these academics were given a password-protected address where they could fill out the questionnaire on government’s greatest priorities of the next fifty years. Respondents were first asked whether the federal government should be involved in each of the fifty current endeavors. (Download the questionnaire. [PDF])

If they answered “yes,” respondents were then asked whether the federal government should be involved: (1) because the endeavor involves a very, somewhat, or not too important issue, (2) because it has a large, moderate, or small responsibility to address the issue, and (3) whether the endeavor should be a top, major, or minor priority.

If, however, respondents answered “no,” they were asked whether the federal government should not be involved (1) because the endeavor does not involve an important issue, (2) because the endeavor is not a federal responsibility, or (3) because past efforts to solve the problem have failed.


Paul C. Light

Former Brookings Expert

Former Brookings Expert

The Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, Robert Wagner School of Public Service, New York University

A total of 550 historians, political scientists, sociologists, and economists completed the survey, producing a response rate of 27 percent. This sample of 115 historians, 160 political scientists, 115 sociologists, and 160 economists is not remotely representative of the American public as a whole. Most respondents presumably had a Ph.D., just under half (46 percent) had tenure at their college or university, most were white (89 percent), male (76 percent), self-identified liberals (58 percent), and Democrats (77 percent). Nevertheless, this is the face of the faculty that has substantial influence over what the nation views as government’s greatest priorities through their teaching, research, and service.

To make sure that no single discipline was given more of a voice due to higher response rates, all totals below were weighted so that each one was equivalent to 115 respondents. The survey was conducted on behalf of the Center for Public Service by Princeton Survey Research Associates, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

To Be Continued….

Setting priorities among government’s fifty greatest current endeavors involves at least four decisions: which endeavors should be continued or stopped; which are most important; which are the federal government’s greatest responsibility; and which should have the highest priority?

An endeavor cannot be a top priority, or a priority of any kind, if it is not worth pursuing at all. Measured by their support for federal involvement, a majority of the 550 historians, political scientists, sociologists, and economists actually said the federal government should be involved in all fifty endeavors. Twenty-eight of the fifty endeavors were endorsed by at least 90 percent of the academics, another eleven received at least 80 percent, four received at least 70 percent, four received at least 60 percent, and three received at least 50 percent. Even the very last endeavor on the continue list, devolving responsibility to the states, received a 54 percent vote. These academics clearly had an appetite for endeavor.

September 11 had almost no impact on the list of items to be continued, but a very significant impact on the list of items to be abandoned. Academics were significantly more likely to say the federal government should discontinue its efforts to devolve responsibility to the states after September 11 (49 percent post-September 11 v. 37 percent pre-), reform taxes (41 percent post- v. 32 pre-), increase market competition (40 percent post- v. 31 percent pre-), and significantly less likely to favor discontinuing the effort to expand home ownership (30 percent post- v. 40 percent pre-) and increasing the supply of low-income housing (21 percent post- v. 32 percent pre-). Although one cannot be sure whether respondents were thinking about the victims of the September attacks, the events of the 11th clearly emphasized the need for a national government and higher spending, while showing the need for government to step in to help the needy.

Interestingly, respondents were statistically as likely to reject the effort to promote and protect democracy both before and after the 11th. Respondents were not just reacting to the broad goal of the endeavor, but to the fact that the endeavor was designed to impede communism. Some respondents may have ranked it low on future involvement because the cold war is over and communism seems in broad decline, while others may have been focusing on the Vietnam War as an example of a particular failure. As noble as protecting democracy seems as a broad goal, federal action has included its share of what these respondents saw as uncertain goals and mixed success. Of the respondents who said the endeavor should be discontinued, 55 percent said it was not an important issue, 47 percent said past policies had failed, and just 29 percent said it was not a federal responsibility.

Although there were differences within the ratings by discipline and demographics, almost all of the variation can be explained by ideology. In statistically significant terms, liberals were more likely than conservatives to endorse continuation on 34 of the fifty endeavors, while conservatives were more likely than liberals to endorse continuation on just seven.

There were no surprises among the endeavors each group favored. Conservatives were more likely than liberals to endorse devolving responsibilities to the states (91 percent v. 37 percent), reforming taxes (96 percent v. 48 percent), and increasing market competition (89 percent v. 51 percent), while liberals were more likely than conservatives to favor renewing impoverished communities (92 percent v. 34 percent), expanding job training (91 percent v. 30 percent), and improving mass transportation (96 percent v. 48 percent).

Ideology also helps explain the differences between the academic disciplines. The fact that 63 percent of the economists rated themselves as conservative or moderate, compared to 45 percent of the historians, 37 percent of the political scientists, and just 19 percent of the sociologists, clearly explains why economists generally gave lower endorsements to almost all of the fifty endeavors than historians, political scientists, and sociologists, including two sub-50 percent endeavors for expanding home ownership (45 percent) and stabilizing agricultural prices (32 percent), and why sociologists gave higher endorsements to more of the endeavors than historians, political scientists, and economists.

Demography also helps explain some of the differences between the disciplines. The economists were much more likely to be male than the sociologists. A third of the sociologists were female, compared to a quarter of the historians, and just under a fifth of the economists and political scientists. Economics may be a discipline that draws somewhat more conservative individuals by nature, but it also seems to attract individuals who are more likely to be conservative by gender.

It is impossible to know whether the rankings would have changed had the sample been more representative of the American public as a whole. Although levels of support would have dropped here and risen there, the fact is that most of the respondents—liberal, moderate, or conservative—favored continuation of most of the endeavors, and in mostly the same order. Although a sample composed solely of conservatives or liberals would have produced different rankings, the American public actually splits roughly equally between conservative, moderate, and liberal. In this regard, the economists come closest to representing the American public as a whole at 26 percent liberal, 49 percent moderate, and 14 percent conservative. Adding more conservatives to their midst would have altered the list only slightly.

Degrees of Importance

Once past the threshold question of whether the federal government should continue or discontinue each endeavor, setting priorities involves a more basic assessment of importance. In theory, the federal government’s greatest priorities should involve the nation’s most important problems.

The list of important endeavors combines a mix of past successes and disappointments. These respondents believe that the federal government still has important work to do on voting rights, retirement security, air quality, and food and drinking water safety, all of which made the list of government’s greatest achievements of the past fifty years. At the same time, they also believe the federal government has important work to do on difficult problems such as providing health care access for the poor. These respondents still see room for improvement across a range of issues.

As expected from the earlier discussion of ideology and demography, the academics disagreed on importance by discipline and demographics. Economists were the least likely to define issues as important, followed by political scientists, historians, and sociologists. The sociologists disagreed with the economists on the importance of 33 out of the fifty endeavors, with political scientists on 25, and historians on 15, taking the more liberal position in all cases.

For example, sociologists were much more likely to see the need to continue reducing nuclear weapons: 95 percent rated the issue as very important, compared to 86 percent of historians, 73 percent of economists, and just 69 percent of political scientists. Sociologists were also more likely to see the problems in all facets of poverty: 85 percent rated health care access for low-income Americans as very important, compared to 74 percent of political scientists, 72 percent of historians, and 62 percent of economists.

Among the most important concerns, historians took the stronger position on the right to vote, and all four disciplines were in close agreement on the importance of promoting financial security in retirement. Although the disagreements obviously outnumbered the agreements, there were six endeavors in which the four samples did find common ground, including the importance of promoting space exploration and reducing illegal drug use.

Degrees of Responsibility

The federal government’s greatest priorities should also involve endeavors that are largely federal responsibilities. Simply stated, the federal government should reserve its greatest energies for problems that only it can solve.

These lists appear to mix two different explanations for federal engagement. On the one hand, many respondents appear to view the federal government as the only level that can handle interstate problems such as air pollution, food safety, and airline safety. They also believe that the federal government is the only level that can and should mount a strong national defense, control immigration, and negotiate arms control. After all, state and local governments do not have armies, most do not have borders with other nations, and none have nuclear weapons.

Similarly, these respondents appear to believe that states, localities, nonprofits, and the private sector have the greater responsibility for helping victims of disaster, reducing crime, reducing welfare dependency, and renewing poor communities. Other traditional state and local priorities such as improving elementary and secondary education, increasing low income housing, and improving mass transportation were also rated below the 40 percent mark on federal responsibility.

On the other hand, these respondents still believe that state and local government cannot be trusted to protect the right to vote, reduce workplace discrimination, reduce exposure to hazardous waste, or protect the wilderness. Nor do they believe that state and local governments can assemble a health care financing system to cover the elderly or poor, or find the political will to provide assistance for the working poor. Although some states such as California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have been leaders in setting stringent environmental standards or making voting easier, these respondents appear to worry more about the states that have lagged behind, whether in helping the needy or enhancing the right to vote.

Not all of these ratings involved a rational distribution of responsibilities across the sectors, however. Respondents did not think the federal government had particularly significant responsibility for promoting democracy, for example, nor for space exploration, or devolving responsibility to the states. But if responsibility on these issues does not lie with the federal government, then with whom does it lie? Only the federal government has a space program and only the federal government can devolve responsibilities to the states.

Government’s Greatest Failures

Much as one can admire the effort to address difficult problems such as discrimination, pollution, or poverty, the federal government should pursue priorities that have at least some chance of success, which in turn implies at least some history of impact.

Past failure was a recurring theme among academics who felt that the federal government should discontinue endeavors such as stabilizing agricultural prices, devolving responsibilities to the states, and promoting and defending democracy from communism.

It is important to note, however, that the failure question was only asked of academics who said an endeavor should be discontinued. As a result, it is not clear whether this list would be the same for those who said each endeavor should be continued.

The Top Priorities of the Next Fifty Years

Unlike last year’s rankings of government’s greatest achievements, which involved a mix of importance, difficulty, and success, it is much easier to rank the federal government’s top priorities of the future. All one has to do is ask each respondent which endeavors should be a top priority and provide the list.

The lists offer two lessons about setting priorities for the future. First, past success can be a predictor of future priority as well as future disinterest. The fact that the federal government has done so well on financial security in retirement, expanding the right to vote, providing health care access for the elderly, and improving air quality in the past is no reason to stop those endeavors now, particularly when events such as the Florida election impasse suggest that there is still work to be done. Yet the fact that the federal government also did well in strengthening the highway system, helping veterans readjust, and promoting space exploration is not cause for making it a priority. At least for these academics, the federal government has done enough on those endeavors.

Second, these respondents believe that the federal government has important work to do in addressing past failures. Expanding health care access for poor Americans was rated number 34 on the list of government’s greatest achievements of the past half century, improving and elementary and secondary education was number 35, and providing assistance for the working poor was number 40, again in large part because they were so difficult to solve. There were several significant differences between respondents who filled out the survey before and after September 11. Those who completed the survey after the 11th were more likely to give a higher priority to both arms control (69 percent v. 56 percent) and health care access for low-income Americans (61 percent v. 52 percent), probably because of heightened concerns about an unsafe world.

Post-September 11 respondents also gave a number of terrorism-related endeavors higher ratings as priorities: strengthen the nation’s airways system (37 percent post-September 11 v. 16 percent pre-September 11), ensure an adequate energy supply (32 percent v. 20 percent), enhance the nation’s health care infrastructure (25 percent v. 13 percent), increase the stability of financial markets (20 percent v. 13 percent), enhance workplace safety (20 percent v. 11 percent), reduce crime (18 percent v. 8 percent), and help victims of disaster (11 percent v. 5 percent).

Finally, post-September respondents were much more likely to mention the war on terrorism when asked whether there were any top priorities missing from the survey. Only 3 percent mentioned terrorism before the 11th, compared to 15 percent after the 11th, which made the endeavors the top missing priority from the list.

Two Futures

American government faces two very different futures. One is hopeful, the other uncertain, one bright with new achievement, the other clouded with questions about America’s willingness to persevere.

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. It is one in which Congress and the president work together to forge consensus on the tough, important problems already known and address the crises not yet imagined. It is also a future in which Congress, the president, and the public embrace the patient progress that has produced so much achievement in the past.

The second future is one in which Congress and the president worry so much about their re-election and popularity that they demand immediate success or none at all. It is one in which young Americans continue to avoid government service for fear of dead-end careers and bureaucratic red-tape, thereby robbing government of the talent it needs to succeed. It is also a future in which the nation’s own leaders continue to demean government and its civic partners for not being able to do more and more with less and less.

It is not yet clear which future will emerge from the current crisis. What is clear is that future success demands strong, bipartisan leadership from both Congress and presidents and public tolerance for the small steps that eventually add up to great impact. Continued progress demands raw political courage of the kind shown in so many of the past breakthroughs listed on the following pages of this report.

Given its 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. Although each generation must address its own challenges—some entirely new, others familiar—the American system of government has been mostly moving forward for more than two hundred years. Where there is a will, there has always been a way. The question for the future is whether the will exists. In this new era of uncertainty, the answer, so far, has been yes.

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