The U.S. government passed nearly 540 major statutes between 1944 and 1999, and in the process changed the world.
That's the conclusion of a new Brookings Institution study that has determined the American government has been a powerful, risk-taking force for good. It finds that "although many Americans still believe that the federal government creates more problems than it solves . . . [it] deserves more credit than it receives."
The study was produced by Brookings Vice President Paul C. Light and is based on a survey of 450 historians and professors of political science. They were chosen "as the most likely to have both the training and confidence to rate" the government's achievements over the past 50 years.
The scholars were asked to rank the U.S. government's top 50 undertakings, grading them from the greatest achievement to the least. They based their calculations on three principal factors: the problem's importance, the difficulty involved in solving it, and the success in reaching a solution.
The scholars concluded that the U.S. government's No. 1 achievement in the past half-century was rebuilding Europe after World War II. Expanding the right to vote came second and promoting equal access to public accommodations ranked third.
The space program, including the moon landing of 1969, placed 25th.
Toward the bottom of the list, ranking 48th, came the comparatively unsuccessful efforts to reform the tax system. Then came the effort to control immigration, and, finally, the attempts to pass more government responsibility to the states.
In his analysis of the findings, Mr. Light notes that "most of the government's greatest endeavors involved a relatively large number of statutes passed over a relatively long period of time." He points out that no single achievement can be attributed to one party, Congress, or president.
The great undertakings "reflect a stunning level of bipartisan commitment," Mr. Light states, while noting that "even Medicare, which was a signature accomplishment of the Great Society …