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Government's greatest achievements : from civil rights to homeland defense /
Paul C. Light.
imprint
Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institution Press, c2002.
description
viii, 241 : ill. ; 24 cm.
ISBN
0815706049 (alk. paper)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institution Press, c2002.
isbn
0815706049 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
4739276
 
Includes bibliographical references (p. 211-229) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Paul C. Light is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
First Chapter

Aiming High, Trying Hard

Greatest Endeavors of the

Past Half-Century

Looking back at the events of September 11, 2001, it is easy to wonder whether the United States will ever return to normal. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington changed American life forever, fundamentally altering just what "normal" means. Americans will always remember where they were when they heard the news about the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies.

As Americans look for reassurance in this era of vulnerability, at least some can be found in the federal government's extraordinary record of achievement over the past half century. Despite what may have seemed like insurmountable odds at the time, the federal government helped rebuild Europe after World War II, conquered polio and a host of other life-threatening diseases, faced down communism, attacked racial discrimination in the voting booth, housing, and the public square, and reduced poverty among the nation's elderly to its lowest levels in modern history.

If assassinations, urban riots, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, Iran hostage taking, the first New York Trade Center bombings in 1993, presidential resignations and impeachment, and stock market crashes were not enough to prevent progress on these extraordinary endeavors, neither will the acts of terrorism. 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. Perhaps that is why trust in government surged by nearly 30 percent in the wake of the attacks, reaching levels not seen since 1968 in the midst of the Vietnam War. Perhaps that is also why confidence in federal employees to do their jobs also hit historic highs. Americans know that there are few problems that cannot be solved with determination and grit.

Some of this success has come through great laws such as the 1965 Medicare Act, which created a new health care program for the nation's elderly, or audacious efforts such as the Apollo space program, which helped the United States win the race to the moon. However, most of the success has been achieved and sustained through collections of smaller, often unheralded laws to clean the air and water, reduce disease, feed the hungry, or protect wild lands and rivers. America rarely conquers its problems in an instant. Rather, it tends to wear problems down, year after year, law after law, until victory is won.

The proof is in more than 500 major laws passed since 1946. Having emerged victorious from World War II and a decade-long economic depression, Congress called upon the federal government to tackle an agenda of concerns worthy of the world's greatest democracy. Over the last half of the twentieth century, the federal government was asked to advance human rights abroad, increase homeownership, expand voting rights, improve air and water quality, reduce the threat of nuclear war, create open housing for all races, protect endangered species and the wilderness, reduce hunger, defeat communism, and build the interstate highway system. Although there have been failures mixed in with the success, Congress has never been reluctant to ask the federal government to tackle tough, difficult problems, and the federal government has mostly succeeded in response.

In this era of promises to create smaller, more limited government, Americans often forget that the federal government has amassed a distinguished record of endeavor that no other sector, private or nonprofit, could create on its own. Perhaps that is why President Bush took such pains after the terrorist attacks to reassure the nation that the federal government would be open for business the next day.

The United States is now facing another seemingly insurmountable problem in the form of international terrorism. By early 2002 it had already produced enough federal action to make this one of the most intensive endeavors of recent history. Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act in October, giving the president sweeping authority to investigate and prevent terrorism, and created a new federal Transportation Security Agency in November to tighten security at the nation's airports. At the same time, the president ordered thousands of troops and aircraft to Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government that had harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network of terrorists.

However, as of early 2002 the question is not whether the effort to strengthen homeland defense and battle terrorism abroad will be one of the federal government's greatest endeavors of the new century. Rather, the question for most Americans is whether the United States will actually achieve results. Will airports become safer? Will bin Laden be brought to justice? Can government prevent future attacks? Moreover, as the events of September 11 fade from memory, it is not clear whether homeland defense and the war on terrorism will remain high priorities far into the future. How much money is Congress really willing to spend on domestic security? How long will Americans tolerate long lines at the airport? How long will the president stay focused on homeland defense?

These questions focus on the three major terms in this book: endeavor, achievement, and priority. An endeavor involves the government's effort to solve some problem such as racial discrimination, air pollution, terrorism, or poverty. An achievement entails government progress in actually solving a problem, for example, by reducing discrimination, preventing pollution, strengthening security, or lowering poverty. Finally, a priority involves choices about how hard the government should work on an endeavor in the future. Chapter 1 of this book focuses on the federal government's greatest endeavors of the past fifty years; chapter 2, on what America's leading historians and political scientists see as the government's greatest achievements of the past fifty years; and chapter 3, on what economists, historians, political scientists, and sociologists believe are the most important priorities for the future.

This chapter explores government's greatest endeavors by defining terms, sorting individual laws into broader endeavors, and searching for patterns in what government has tried to do these past fifty years. Readers are cautioned that the term greatest does not mean the best, most successful, or even most important. Rather, it refers to the problems that the federal government tried hardest to solve.

THE ANATOMY OF AN ENDEAVOR

Americans tend to focus on government laws, orders, and decisions whenever they think about what the federal government does. That is how the media and many experts think of government, too. Congress passes laws, presidents issue orders, and federal courts make decisions. Survey researchers rarely ask Americans what they think about the federal government's overall effort to reduce poverty among the elderly, improve drinking water safety, or protect the wilderness, for example. They ask instead about public confidence in the future of programs such as Social Security, fears about specific problems such as airplane hijackings, or proposed solutions such as oil drilling in the Alaskan wildlife preserve.

Much as individual laws, orders, and decisions matter to what the federal government does, they are best viewed as the building blocks of larger endeavors to solve problems. Even great laws such as the 1935 Social Security Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Medicare Act, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have been amended repeatedly over time to broaden their coverage and protect past gains. Just as Rome was not built in a day, federal progress on the great problems of history is rarely found in a single law or decision.

There are three parts to every government endeavor chronicled in this chapter. First, every endeavor involves a problem. Some problems are more difficult to solve, while others appear to be easier. Some problems are more important, while others are judged less significant. Finally, some problems can only be solved if the federal government takes the lead, while others are better tackled by state and local governments, the nonprofit sector, private groups, or individual citizens and families.

Second, every endeavor involves a solution. Some solutions can be found in a law or laws such as the Voting Rights Act, the Housing and Community Development Act, or the antiterrorism laws passed in the wake of the New York and Washington attacks. Other solutions can be found in Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education , which abolished racial discrimination in the public schools. Still others can result from presidential orders. By definition an endeavor demands tangible, not symbolic, action.

Some problems involve more than one kind of solution, however. On the one hand, the federal government strengthened the nation's highway system by doing the same thing over and over: building thousands and thousands of miles of highways, bridges, and roads. On the other hand, Congress has never been quite sure what it wants to do about immigration. It has passed laws to invite illegal immigrants to stay and laws to force them to leave, laws to tighten the nation's borders and laws to let more immigrants in.

Third, every endeavor involves some level of effort. The level of effort can be measured in a variety of ways: the number of laws passed, pages of regulation written, amount of money spent, or number of employees hired. Great endeavors require more than great intentions: they usually require sustained action over time.

WHAT GOVERNMENT HAS TRIED TO DO

There are several ways to identify the federal government's greatest endeavors. One is to search the federal budget for the largest programs. Another is to read and count the number of pages devoted to a specific problem in the Code of Federal Regulations , which records the rules that the federal government adopts to implement the laws, decisions, and orders given by the three branches of government. Still another way is to track the number of federal employees involved in solving a particular problem.

This book is based on reading the federal statute books, which record every law passed by Congress, signed by the president, and deemed constitutional by the federal courts. Not only are laws the "stem cell," or starting point, for almost everything that government does, they are easy to identify and count. Scholars know exactly how many laws have been passed in every two-year Congress, what those laws were intended to do, and whether those laws are major or minor, substantive or symbolic. Moreover, to the extent that Congress is serious when it tries to solve a problem through the legislative process, the Congressional Quarterly Almanac provides an easily accessible source of information on the most important laws.

The Congressional Quarterly Almanac is considered more than just the final word on what Congress and the president try to do. Its annual summary of the major legislation enacted and signed into law is considered the authoritative source on which laws are important. Because laws determine the number of federal rules, size of the federal budgets, and number of federal employees, they are the logical place to start in building a list of the government's greatest endeavors.

Congressional Quarterly is not the only resource on the major laws of the past half-century, however. Yale University political scientist David Mayhew has been working on his own list of major legislation for the past two decades, adding new laws at the end of each two-year Congress. Mayhew's list of more than 300 laws is based on two sweeps of history, the first a careful reading of the New York Times and Washington Post at the end of each year to see what the two newspapers covered as the most important laws of the year, and the second a careful reading of deeper histories by political scientists, historians, and other scholars to see which of those laws passed the test of time as truly important.

Using Mayhew's list as an anchor, this study of government's greatest endeavors is based on a further reading of every Congressional Quarterly Almanac and year-end Congressional Quarterly Weekly summary from 1944 through 1999. Researchers looked not only for the accomplishments of Congress as a whole but also for legislation that might have been overlooked by the press or scholars, or could be judged a significant legislative accomplishment in its own field. That deeper analysis produced a list of more than 540 major laws passed over the last half-century, dealing with virtually every domestic and foreign problem imaginable. Some of the laws are instantly recognizable whereas others are only known to the small number of experts in specific fields. But whether familiar or obscure, these laws show just how much the federal government tried to do between the end of World War II and the inauguration of President George W. Bush in 2001.

FROM LAWS TO ENDEAVORS

It is one thing to identify the major laws of the past half century, however, and quite another to combine those individual laws into broad endeavors. The first step is to identify the problem each law tried to solve. As already noted, Congress has asked the federal government to solve just about every problem imaginable, from promoting the arts at home to promoting democracy abroad, protecting the elderly from poverty to protecting the world from communism, expanding access to education for America's children to expanding humanitarian relief for the world's poor.

From 1944 through 2001, for example, Congress passed twenty-seven major laws to protect and expand civil rights in the United States. Some of those laws dealt with expanding the right to vote by eliminating practices such as the literacy test and poll tax; others focused on ending discrimination against people of color, women, and the disabled; and still others aimed to end discrimination in public places such as bus stations, restaurants, and hotels. Although all of these laws dealt with discrimination, there were at least three specific problems Congress tried to solve: voting discrimination, workplace discrimination, and discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and housing.

During the same period, Congress passed more than eighty laws to protect the environment and ensure an adequate supply of energy.

Continue...

Excerpted from Government's Greatest Achievements by Paul C. Light Copyright © 2002 by Brookings Institution Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2003-02-01:
Government's Greatest Achievements is an outstanding undertaking that examines the accomplishments and failures of the US government over the past half-century. Utilizing survey responses from 450 political scientists and historians, Light, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, ranks the 25 most significant achievements of the federal government. For each endeavor, from rebuilding Europe after WW II (the greatest achievement of the past half-century, according to Light) to promoting space exploration, Light provides an interesting historical analysis employing useful anecdotes to champion the importance of each legislative initiative. The overall theme of Light's work is that the US government, though by no means without failures, has been remarkably successful at many of the endeavors it has embarked upon, even though some of the efforts (reducing disease, containing communism) may have seemed nearly impossible when the federal government first began to tackle the problem. Light concludes with a discussion of the of the federal government's most pressing priorities for the next half-century, arguing that future success demands "public tolerance for the small steps that eventually add up to great impact." Highly recommended for general readers, lower-division undergraduates, and professionals. P. Fisher Monmouth University
Reviews
Review Quotes
"An informed history and celebration showcasing twenty-five of the American government's policy successes from 1944 to 1999.... an extraordinary, uplifting read which offers striking and sometimes even surprising facts. A very strongly recommended addition to both academic and community library Political Science and American History collections, 'Government's Greatest Achievements' is a welcome antidote to the usual drumbeat of media criticism and endemic public skepticism." --John Taylor, Midwest Book Review
"An outstanding undertaking.... highly recommended." --P. Fisher, Monmouth University, Choice , 2/1/2003
"'Government's Greatest Achievements' by Paul C. Light does not push some partisan agenda, but offers a scholarly look at government successes." --David Hampton, The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS) , 10/6/2002
"Light's book provides fair, thorough, and insightful analysis. Divided into three major parts--greatest endeavors, greatest achievements, and greatest priorities--Light's book is a straightforward walk through the positive legacy of the federal government....Overall, the book is very clearly organized, well-researched, and accessible and enjoyable reading for anyone interested in history, government, politics, or law.... Government's Greatest Achievements is a book every American (skeptic or not) should read." --Erica Jane Lamm, University of Maryland, Rhetoric and Public Affairs , 12/1/2003
"On the anniversary of an American tragedy, an important book is being published as a celebration of our government at its best.... 'Government's Greatest Achievements' is a wonderful book that shows how the American political system has compiled an extraordinary record in responding to the most difficult of challenges." --Steve Neal, Chicago Sun-Times , 9/11/2002
"...this book could cause government naysayers to think differently. Few problems are solved overnight, but Light's analysis is proof that progress can come from government, regardless of the party in control of Congress or the White House." --Deborah Acomb, NationalJournal.com, NationalJournal.com , 4/24/2003
"This book is a refutation to those who argue government can never do anything right --and inspiration to those who want to make our system work." --David Broder, syndicated columnist, Washington Post
"This book addresses the most fundamental question for any policymaker: 'What should the government be doing?' It is the opening bell in the debate over the right priorities for the federal government in the first decade of the 21st century. For those of us who have focused on improving government's ability to deliver on its responsibilities to the American public, it comes none too soon. Once again, Paul Light has us all thinking ahead of the curve. " --Fred Thompson, United States Senator
This item was reviewed in:
Choice, February 2003
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Summaries
Main Description
In an era of promises to create smaller, more limited government, Americans often forget that the federal government has amassed an extraordinary record of successes over the past half century. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, it helped rebuild Europe after World War II, conquered polio and other life-threatening diseases, faced down communism, attacked racial discrimination, reduced poverty among the elderly, and put men on the moon. In Government's Greatest Achievements, Paul C. Light explores the federal government's most successful accomplishments over the previous five decades and anticipates the most significant challenges of the next half century. While some successes have come through major legislation such as the 1965 Medicare Act, or large-scale efforts like the Apollo space program, most have been achieved through collections of smaller, often unheralded statutes. Drawing on survey responses from 230 historians and 220 political scientists at colleges and universities nationwide, Light ranks and summarizes the fifty greatest government achievements from 1944 to 1999. The achievements were ranked based on difficulty, importance, and degree of success. Through a series of twenty vignettes, he paints a vivid picture of the most intense government efforts to improve the quality of life both at home and abroad --from enhancing health care and workplace safety, to expanding home ownership, to improving education, to protecting endangered species, to strengthening the national defense. The book also examines how Americans perceive government's greatest achievements, and reveals what they consider to be its most significant failures.America is now calling on the government to resolve another complex, difficult problem: the defeat of terrorism. Light concludes by discussing this enormous task, as well as government's other greatest priorities for the next fifty years.
Main Description
In this book, Paul C. Light explores the federal governments most successful accomplishments over the previous five decades and anticipates the most significant challenges of the next half century.
Publisher Fact Sheet
Americans often forget the federal government's extraordinary record of success over the past half century. Despite steep odds, the fed helped to rebuild Europe after World War II, conquered polio, put men on the moon, attacked racial discrimination, faced down communism, and reduced poverty among the elderly. Paul Light explores 20 of these accomplishments in short vignettes and anticipates the most significant challenges for the next half century.
Unpaid Annotation
In an era of promises to create smaller, more limited government, Americans often forget that the federal government has amassed an extraordinary record of successes over the past half century. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, it helped rebuild Europe after World War II, conquered polio and other life-threatening diseases, faced down communism, attacked racial discrimination, reduced poverty among the elderly, and put men on the moon. In Government's Greatest Achievements, Paul C. Light explores the federal government's most successful accomplishments over the previous five decades and anticipates the most significant challenges of the next half century. While some successes have come through major legislation such as the 1965 Medicare Act, or large-scale efforts like the Apollo space program, most have been achieved through collections of smaller, often unheralded statutes. Drawing on survey responses from 230 historians and 220 political scientists at colleges and universities nationwide,Light ranks and summarizes the fifty greatest government achievements from 1944 to 1999. The achievements were ranked based on difficulty, importance, and degree of success. Through a series of twenty vignettes, he paints a vivid picture of the most intense government efforts to improve the quality of life both at home and abroad -- from enhancing health care and workplace safety, to expanding home ownership, to improving education, to protecting endangered species, to strengthening the national defense. The book also examines how Americans perceive government's greatest achievements, and reveals what they consider to be its most significant failures. America is now calling on the government toresolve another complex, difficult problem: the defeat of terrorism. Light concludes by discussing this enormous task, as well as government's other greatest priorities for the next fifty years.
Table of Contents
Prefacep. vii
Aiming High, Trying Hard: Greatest Endeavors of the Past Half-Centuryp. 1
Staying the Course: Greatest Achievements of the Past Half-Centuryp. 49
Facing the Future: Greatest Priorities of the Next Half-Centuryp. 165
Appendixes
Government's Greatest Endeavors of the Past Half-Centuryp. 191
Ratings of Fifty Past Endeavorsp. 199
Ratings of Fifty Future Endeavorsp. 205
Further Readingp. 211
Indexp. 231
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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