For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability. Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.
That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling. In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria. In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab. The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards. The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.
Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic. But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue: a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies. In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country. And those are just a few of the stories.
For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties. The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation: is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do? In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question.