Light’s research shows decades of accelerating government breakdowns, with former president Donald Trump crashing through previous records.
The driving factor, he said: “Decades of neglect,” including the failure to upgrade government technology and to modernize the civil service system. Light also blames delayed agency funding by Congress, which he terms “budgetary cliff-diving,” for causing uncertainty and shutdowns.
It was only a matter of time, Light knew in January, before Biden suffered one on his watch.
Sure enough, even before spring, the migrant crisis along the southern border was metastasizing. Biden didn’t create the nation’s long-troubled immigration situation. But the current surge of unaccompanied children, desperate and overcrowded in makeshift facilities without their parents, is happening on his watch. It represents how too often the government fails to adequately resolve major problems, despite successes in other areas.
The coronavirus pandemic under Trump is a particularly tragic example, with his bungled response contributing to more than 500,000 American deaths in about a year. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was another breakdown, as was the 35-day partial government shutdown during his administration that began at the end of 2018. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina under President George W. Bush are other examples on Light’s lists. So are the mass shootings at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009 and 2014 under President Barack Obama.
Light warns that the implementation of the huge $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package provides ample opportunities for breakdowns in its many programs. But if Light had to pick a potential agency to suffer an immediate breakdown place, “I’d say IRS is a good bet just because it’s tax season.”
Whatever is next, it probably won’t be the last.
Light’s data indicate that the number of highly visible federal government breakdowns jumped from an average of 1.4 annually between 1986 and 2000 to 3.5 since then. Trump had 27 breakdowns in four years, compared with 25 under George W. Bush and 28 under Obama during their eight years each in the White House. Trump’s yearly breakdown rate was 6.75.
“Donald Trump left us with a government that was pretty badly damaged,” said Light.
“And Joe Biden is now in charge of cleanup. It’s a damn shame for him, but he’s got to fix things now.”
Light isn’t the only one warning about the potential of government failures. Every two years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) lists federal programs that it says “are ‘high risk’ due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation.”
The January 2021 high-risk list has 36 problem areas that Light said would be a good place for the Biden administration to start. One new entry is the Small Business Administration’s coronavirus emergency loan program. “While these loans have helped many small businesses,” the GAO wrote, “greater attention and oversight of these funds is needed due to the risks of fraud.”
U.S. Postal Service finances, long in distress, are on the GAO’s “got worse” list, as is federal workforce management. One area not yet on the list, but worth watching, according to the GAO, is the Department of Health and Human Service’s management of public health emergencies. That management could not keep the nation from leading the world in covid-19 deaths during Trump’s tenure.
Although the GAO provides a road map to current and potential government failures, don’t expect agencies to respond fully or quickly. Despite the GAO’s warnings, 20 areas on notice demonstrated little change since being embarrassed by being put on the 2019 list.
In addition to fixing specific areas, Light urges Biden to focus broadly on what he calls the federal government’s “rising vulnerability to failure.” The vulnerability stems from “the steady erosion of government capacity, the failure to modernize aging bureaucracies, and the deafening ‘quiet crisis’ of student disinterest in government careers,” he writes in “What Americans Still Want From Reform,” a paper to be published in April by the Brookings Institution, where Light is a nonresident senior fellow.
Biden also should cut the government’s many layers of management by reducing the number of political appointees, which currently number about 4,000, he advises.
The fundamental problem, according to Light, is that the federal government needs a major overhaul. Many systems need repair. He recommended Biden create another Hoover Commission to lead a renovation of Uncle Sam’s house. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed former president Herbert Hoover to lead a commission that produced government reorganization recommendations. A second Hoover Commission was created in 1953 during the Eisenhower administration.
Light suggested that Biden tap former vice president Al Gore or Jeffrey Zients, now the White House coronavirus coordinator and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget under Obama, to lead a new reorganization effort.
Biden “needs to pull together a repair crew,” Light said. “He needs to get a to-do list of things that need to be fixed.”
Light also wants Congress to give Biden broad reorganization authority.
“We just don’t have a mechanism for doing that kind of big work or doing the smaller work,” he said. “It’s just very, very difficult to do.”