Homeland Security and Other Boondoggles

The unintended consequences of the Bush administration’s signature reforms.

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“Government likes to begin things—to declare grand new programs and causes,” President Bush said in 2001 at the unveiling of his “Management Agenda,” a program aimed at improving the performance of federal agencies. “But good beginnings are not the measure of success. What matters in the end is completion. Performance. Results.” In subsequent years, the Bush administration gave birth to numerous new executive departments, offices, and programs of its own—and the results are in. A stroll through the graveyard of best intentions…

Department of Homeland Security
Promise: To develop a more effective domestic response to terrorism and natural disasters by bringing 22 federal agencies and more than 200,000 employees under the management of a single Cabinet-level agency.
Performance: DHS has yet to make even “moderate” progress toward improving emergency preparedness and eliminating the kinds of bureaucratic and technological ineptitude that contributed to the 9/11 attacks, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Promise: First proposed by the 9/11 Commission, it was created to place the sprawling, and frequently squabbling, intelligence community under a single authority.
Performance: Added yet another layer of bureaucracy. Like the CIA before it, ODNI is held responsible for overseeing America’s intelligence community (civilian and military), though lacks control over some 80 percent of the nation’s intelligence budget, which remains the purview of the Pentagon.

Military Transformation
Promise: Based on a belief in the transformative power of technology, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs emphasized using fewer troops, reliance on sophisticated weapons systems, and air strikes.
Performance: Iraq.

No Child Left Behind
Promise: Aimed to improve K-12 education by imposing a series of national achievement standards in math and reading, measured primarily through standardized testing.
Performance: Teachers were tacitly encouraged to “teach to the test,” often at the expense of untested subjects like social studies, foreign languages, the arts, and physical education. Some schools have gamed the system, either by lowering standards or by turning away students who may skew test results.

Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
Promise: A hallmark of “compassionate conservatism,” which funneled billions of dollars in federal funding to faith-based and community organizations on the belief that such groups are better positioned to cater to local needs.
Performance: By focusing almost exclusively on Christian charities, the office violated the separation of church and state, quickly becoming the target of legal challenges. Its first director, John DiIulio, resigned in disgust, characterizing the Bush administration as “the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis” and alleging that aides were more interested in promoting a partisan agenda than advancing good policy.

Community-Based Abstinence Education
Promise: Pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into local groups that worked to reduce teen pregnancies by preaching abstinence—sometimes literally, through means of Bible readings and exhortations to accept Jesus.
Performance: Last year, instances of teen pregnancy increased for the first time in 15 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Promise: Established a public-private partnership to build a near-zero-emissions coal-fueled power plant to be located in Mattoon, Illinois—a pilot facility that, if successful, would form the basis for the expansion of clean coal plants.
Performance: In January 2008, the Energy Department withdrew funding, citing cost overruns. Illinois politicians complained that the program was killed after their state edged out Texas as the test site.

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