Politics & Policy

A Dysfunctional Government, Top to Bottom

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Obama’s idealistic plans are betrayed by the sprawling government he runs.

Whether President Barack Obama realizes it or not, his second term represents a crisis of American self-governance. He is offering a large-scale demonstration that as the federal government grows ever larger, with ever more expansive responsibilities, it becomes increasingly dysfunctional, plagued by a culture of complacency in key agencies with no sign of serious accountability for consequential mistakes.

Obama and his VA secretary, Eric Shinseki, thought the VA was succeeding in reducing the backlog of veterans needing care. On Monday the nation learned that the scale of the much-covered problem was epic: “57,000 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days for an appointment and . . . an additional 64,000 requested medical care but never made it onto VA waiting lists.”

In 2012, President Obama announced a decision to stop deporting those who entered the country illegally under the age of 16. This was a version of one of his domestic policy goals, the DREAM Act, providing a path to citizenship to those who entered the country illegally as children.

Today on the U.S. border with Mexico, the federal government is struggling to keep up with waves of unattended children crossing into this country. According to Customs and Border Protection, in the past eight months, agents have apprehended about 47,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed into the U.S. illegally from Mexico; apprehensions of minors this year may reach 90,000. Three military bases are being used as emergency housing for these minors. Some attribute the surge to increased gang violence in El Salvador and Guatemala, while others argue that Obama’s 2012 decision created a strong new incentive for foreign citizens to send their children into the country illegally. There is no indication that President Obama will reverse the policy.

Obama trusted that his health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, would tell him if Healthcare.gov wouldn’t be ready by the deadline. After a humiliatingly dysfunctional launch, Healthcare.gov has cost taxpayers “at least $834 million in IT spending so far, and another $200 million is being requested for fiscal 2015.” The site is being completely redesigned, with new contractors, and taxpayers and insurance buyers may get a frustrating rerun next year as well:

The makeover — and the tight timeline to accomplish it — are raising concerns that consumers could face another rocky rollout this fall when they return to the site to choose health plans. Some key back-end functions, including a system to automate payments to insurers, are running behind schedule, according to a presentation federal officials made to health insurers.

Separately, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, and Oregon will spend $240 million to fix their sites or switch to the federal marketplace, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.

Of course, large-scale projects beget large-scale problems:

The government may be paying incorrect subsidies to more than 1 million Americans for their health plans in the new federal insurance marketplace and has been unable so far to fix the errors.

In each of the above cases, the highest level of our government walked around in a self-deluding fog, convinced that everything was fine, until it reached a belated realization that predictable problems had exploded into full-blown crises.

But those are just the highest-profile examples. Almost every day, the inside sections of the newspaper provide new examples of government waste, incompetence, malfeasance, or bureaucratic inertia that would be funny if we weren’t all paying for it:

• A General Accounting Office review concludes that the Office of Management and Budget and the vast majority of agencies do not have adequate policies for managing software licenses. One software-management firm estimates that “the US government wastes up to $2 billion per year, or 25 percent of its annual $8 billion software budget, on shelfware (unused software), under-utilized software, and non-optimized management of software licenses.”

Federal employees and a contractor diverted more than $1 million of charitable contributions to spending on themselves for in-office massages, meals at every meeting, and other luxuries and unnecessary expenses. While those funds aren’t provided by taxpayers, “some 41 federal workers were being paid full-time salaries to administer just one local chapter of the government’s annual workplace charity drive, the Combined Federal Campaign.”

#page#

Market rigging spins out of control, as usual:

The Energy Department, in an effort to prop up a troubled uranium enrichment company, arranged for uranium transfers that failed to comply with laws about fair pricing, national security determinations and limits to prevent the department from flooding the domestic uranium market, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released to the public Monday.

The Pentagon is guilty, too:

Northrop Grumman improperly charged the U.S. government more than $100 million in “questionable” costs on a contract, according to a Defense Department inspector general’s report. The report found that from October 2007 through March 2013, the major defense contractor “did not properly charge labor rates” for a counter-narcoterrorism contract, and that the Army agency in charge of the contract did not ensure that the people performing the work had the necessary qualifications. The agency also did not review invoices for millions of dollars of overtime, the report said.

• The Small Business Health Options Program, a provision of Obamacare, did not launch this year, and the administration approved a delay for 18 states, putting off the program’s launch in those states until at least 2016.

State exchanges have their embarrassments as well: “A Connecticut Obamacare exchange worker has admitted to taking personal information about 400 enrollees out of the office, information that was found in a backpack left on a Hartford street last week.”

• Representative Darrell Issa spotlighted this maddening tale of one part of the federal government prosecuting a man for doing a job that another part had hired him to do:

Ernesto Pulido’s Oakland, California landscape company was hired by the U.S. Postal Service to trim the trees around a parking lot for their mail trucks. The company began the job this federal agency hired them to do, but it was later brought to their attention that the trees they just cut back were home to several Black-Crowned Night Herons, a species of bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a result of the tree pruning, the birds’ habitat was disrupted, and while no birds were killed, some sustained minor injuries. Trying to make the best of the situation, Mr. Pulido has publicly apologized for disturbing the birds and made a $2,500 contribution to a local shelter w[h]ere they were taken for treatment and recovery. But that wasn’t good enough for the Fish and Wildlife Service that decided to refer Mr. Pulido for federal prosecution where he could face up to six months in jail and a $15,000 fine.

After congressional ridicule and criticism, the Justice Department elected not to pursue charges against Pulido.

Obama is described by friends and confidants as being increasingly frustrated as his second term drags on. His frustration stems from an inability or refusal to get to the heart of his governing problem: Obama’s liberal worldview depends upon the federal government to be an effective, efficient, and trustworthy tool for implementing his vision of progress, but the bureaucracy he sits atop has its own vision: a bigger, more expensive, less accountable version of the status quo. 

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO and is the author of The Weed Agency, a comic satire of the federal bureaucracy.

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