This will be a shocker, I know, but with rare exception, Americans don’t think very highly of the federal government. When asked their opinions of 16 different prominent federal agencies, members of the public are more likely to voice negative sentiments than positive ones for about three-quarters of them. Can you guess who gets the most hate? (Hint: it has something to do with April 15.)
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Years of Low Ratings for Federal Agencies
“Of 16 federal government agencies and departments included in the latest Gallup survey, just four receive positive job-performance ratings from a majority of Americans, making 2023 the third consecutive year of relatively low readings,” reports Gallup. “The U.S. Postal Service (62%), the Secret Service (55%), the Department of Defense (53%) and NASA (52%) are each evaluated as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ by more than half of U.S. adults.”
As with most matters in modern America, opinions vary based on partisan affiliation.
“Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view 15 of the 16 agencies and departments more positively than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do,” notes the polling agency. “Only the VA is rated similarly by both party groups. About one in three of each group views the VA positively.”
That said, those four agencies getting a thumbs-up represent consolation prizes, at best. The Department of Defense gets 53 percent “excellent” or “good” assessments in this survey, but in separate results released in July, Gallup noted: “At 60%, confidence in the military was last this low in 1997, and it hasn’t been lower since 1988, when 58% were confident.” That helps fuel a military recruiting crisis—the Army fell short of recruitment goals again, this month. This is a positively rated agency.
Likewise, the Postal Service wins top spot with 62 percent “excellent” or “good” assessments. You have to wonder if that reflects the service’s largely successful efforts to put behind it that unpleasant “going postal” period when, as Vice noted, “in the late 80s and early 90s, a spate of shootings by disgruntled postal workers became the primary way most Americans thought of the post office.” Way to go, mail carriers; you shifted your public image to stolen mail from blood spatter!
The Secret Service gets a 55 percent positive assessment, though it’s difficult to know whether that’s despite or because of agents’ hard-partying reputation from Cartagena to Amsterdam to D.C. Who doesn’t like a good time?
And NASA, with 52 percent approval, continues to capture Americans’ high-flying imaginations. Truthfully, though, it has largely become an office that contracts out the actual space work to private companies such as Northrop Grumman and (especially) SpaceX.
Those are the agencies to which Americans are, on average, favorably inclined. What about the others?
“Majorities of Americans rate the other 12 government agencies as ‘only fair’ or ‘poor,'” adds Gallup. “The IRS is viewed in the lowest regard, with 30% positive and 70% negative ratings, while the Veterans Administration (VA), Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Reserve Board, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are not far behind, with 32% to 38% rating them positively.”
Fundraiser for the Unpopular
That the IRS is widely despised is hardly news. Its role, after all, is to forcibly extract funds from the population for agencies like the Veterans Administration (66 percent negative), Department of Justice (66 percent negative), Environmental Protection Agency (66 percent negative) and, should you get on the government’s bad side, Homeland Security (57 percent negative) and FBI (53 percent negative). An arm-twisting fundraiser for unpopular causes is destined to be unloved.
Beyond that, the IRS sullies its name with incompetence, criminal activity, and politicization. In August, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration revealed “the IRS cannot account for thousands of microfilm cartridges containing millions of sensitive business and individual tax account record.”
Last year, the Government Accountability Office found IRS employees are constantly engaged in “willful unauthorized access of tax data.”
This summer, IRS whistleblowers claimed superiors “slow walked” the investigation into Hunter Biden and that “Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Wolf told us prosecutors had decided to conceal some evidence from the investigators.” That’s after the scandal of a decade ago, confirmed by the Inspector General, over targeting of Tea Party groups.
“Since the advent of the federal income tax about a century ago, several presidents – or their zealous underlings – have directed the IRS to use its formidable police powers to harass or punish enemies, political rivals, and administration critics,” The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2013.
“A Series of Withering Federal Watchdog Reports”
The FBI has also developed a reputation among conservatives for hostile partisanship. Truthfully, its political interference dates back decades and is less consistently ideological than protective of the powerful.
“The FBI…has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups,” the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee complained in 1976.
The law enforcement agency is a mess. In March of this year, Politico pointed out that “a series of withering federal watchdog reports have faulted the bureau for slipshod compliance with everything from national-security surveillance procedures to its own rules limiting contacts with the media.”
Another mess is the universally loathed Veterans Administration. The VA has a history of offering poor care to veterans, gaming waiting lists to conceal the number of patients denied treatment, and retaliating against whistleblowers. Uniting Democrats, Republicans, and Independents in contempt, somewhere in the VA is a lesson on how not to build trust.
With controversial authoritarian policy responses to the pandemic an ongoing matter of public debate, low regard for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (58 percent negative) and Food and Drug Administration (61 percent negative) is no surprise. Public health figures are being called out for suppressing discussion of the likely lab-leak origin of COVID-19, and the CDC, in particular, has shed credibility with many Americans.
All things considered, it’s a bit surprising that any federal agency enjoys the trust and support of significant segments of the public. Perhaps it’s just the triumph of low standards. But as overwhelmingly negative opinions for most agencies of the government attest, the most consistent accomplishment of the U.S. government is in its ability to disappoint the American people.