Analysis: Coronavirus pandemic exposes how US has hollowed out its government
The federal government’s halting response to the coronavirus pandemic represents the culmination of chronic structural weaknesses, years of underinvestment and political rhetoric that has undermined the public trust — conditions compounded by President Donald Trump’s open hostility to a federal bureaucracy that has been called upon to manage the crisis.
Government leaders, beginning with the president, appeared caught unaware by the swiftness with which the coronavirus was spreading through the country — though this was not the first time that an administration seemed ill-prepared for an unexpected shock. But even after the machinery of government clanked into motion, missteps, endemic obstacles and lack of clear communication have plagued the efforts to meet the needs of the nation.
“A fundamental role of government is the safety and security of its people,” said Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security. “To me that means you have to maintain a certain base level so that, when an event like a pandemic manifests itself, you can quickly activate what you have and you have already in place a system and plan for what the federal government is going to do and what the states are going to do.”
That has not been the case this spring. The nation is reaping the effects of decades of denigration of government and also from a steady squeeze on the resources needed to shore up the domestic parts of the executive branch.
This hollowing out has been going on for years as a gridlocked Congress preferred continuing resolutions and budgetary caps over hardheaded decisions about vulnerable governmental infrastructure, while leaders did little to address structural weaknesses.
The problems have grown worse in the past three years. Trump was elected having never served in government or the military. That was one reason he appealed to many of those who backed him. He came to Washington deeply suspicious of what he branded the “deep state.” Promising to drain the swamp, he has vilified career civil servants and the institutions of government that now are being called upon to perform at the highest levels.
His transition was messy and since then his administration has been slow to populate the thousands of political slots atop federal agencies, and the president has seemed to prefer acting agency heads to those who can win confirmation from the Senate and the authority that imprimatur conveys. He has targeted career officials and sought retribution for those who differed with him, particularly those whose job it is to find and expose problems.
“One thing to keep in mind is that government takes on hard problems,” said David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “They’re often problems that can’t be solved by the market and there aren’t private entities to solve them.”
He added: “We’re seeing a government that is suffering now from a long period of neglect that began well before this administration. And that neglect has accelerated during this administration.”
The question is whether the weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed by the current crisis will generate a newfound interest among the nation’s elected officials — and the public — in repairing the infrastructure of government and a sense of urgency on the part of the public to encourage them to do so. Or will partisanship and public indifference lead to a continuation of the status quo?