As America approaches a historic transfer of power, it is becoming ever clearer what a daunting set of tasks awaits the new administration. When Barack Obama takes the oath of office at noon on January 20, he will inherit an economy collapsing before our eyes and a pair of ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he will also inherit a federal government whose machinery should bear an "out of order" sign.
Some of these problems were in place well before George W. Bush's inauguration but were exacerbated by his policies or worsened by his administration's actions (or inactions). Many of the failings are tied to Bush appointees who appear to have been selected primarily on the basis of ideology and loyalty rather than competence.
The Bush administration has also displayed what's at best a lukewarm interest in independent oversight, often siding with business over consumers and special interests over the public. The results have been dramatic consequences in a variety of sectors.
Obama has often stated his desire to have a more efficient government—one that is open, transparent, and accountable. "We are not going to be hampered by ideology in trying to get this country back on track," he said in December. "We want to figure out what works."
Not much did under Bush.
In a comprehensive assessment of systematic failures over the past eight years, the Center for Public Integrity found 128 examples of government breakdown involving 67 federal government agencies. The failures occurred in areas as diverse as education, energy, the environment, justice and security, the military and veterans' affairs, healthcare, transportation, financial management, consumer and worker safety, and more. While some of the failures are, by now, depressingly familiar—a false premise for war, torture, and the handling of Katrina—many are less well known but equally distressing, such as a dismissiveness toward whistleblower complaints, $100 billion in revenue lost to corporations' offshore tax shelters, and a backlog of Veterans Affairs disability claims.
Much of the function of the federal government shifted from public employees to private contractors, as federal spending on contractors nearly doubled from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2006, jumping from $234.8 billion to $415 billion. These contracts often lacked competitive bidding processes and effective oversight and suffered from cost overruns and poor execution.
Finally, the White House and its political appointees have frequently inserted themselves into matters of science, overruling experts and suppressing reports that did not coincide with the administration's philosophy. The nonpartisan Union of Concerned Scientists warned that "political interference in federal government science is weakening our nation's ability to respond to the complex challenges we face."
The picture that emerges is one of an administration unable to meet its basic responsibilities and adversely impacting the nation's citizens.
Bill Buzenberg is executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.