This is a common complaint and one with which I agree. However, it is very simplistic and says no more than what is pretty obvious. There is probably little or nothing we can do about it, but here are a few thoughts on how and why it got to be that way and why it is unlikely to get better. Generally, these things go unmentioned in civics classes. These comments expand on some I made recently in response to an article at Blogcritics.
Despite the claimed desire for less government, and the complaints about how poorly it does just about everything, there are constant demands for the government to fix problems. These demands all too often focus on the Federal government, and candidates for office rely heavily on their promises to make the U.S. Heaven on Earth in order to get elected. During the training process, a horse needs to be taught, “Don't just do something; stand there.” Politicians might profit from similar instruction; I have never heard a candidate promise to leave anything alone. Promises to “do something” are viewed as necessary to get elected, and quite often the candidate who makes the most effusive promises wins.
During FDR's New Deal, numerous “alphabet agencies” were created to pull the country out of a depression. Many of those agencies still exist, although their efforts to end the depression were largely ineffective. World War II was mainly responsible for ending the depression. The agencies not only continue to exist, they have “growed like Topsy” during the more than half century since their creation; they continue to do so, and it is at least questionable whether they do more to help the country than to harm it.
Most of the actual work done by the government is done by its Administrative Agencies. Let's look at how a typical agency works. I practiced communications law in Washington, D.C. for twenty years, and all of my clients had dealings with the Federal Communication Commission. That is the agency with which I am most familiar, and even though it was not created to end the Great Depression, it is typical in many respects of the other alphabet agencies. I should add that I retired twelve years ago, and so some of my observations may be dated; still, I think that not much has changed or ever will.
The FCC has five commissioners, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Congress. They have fixed terms in office, but can be reappointed. They are political appointees, most often drawn from the communications industry. They lead a staff of thousands, organized into various divisions, bureaus, and sections. Each division, bureau, and section has a chief and under the chief there are many employees. All are civil service employees, and accordingly enjoy substantial job security. Some might argue that they enjoy too much job security, but that is another issue.
Most actions are initiated at the section level and, if they involve a contested issue, the decision can be taken to the Bureau level. If one or more parties is unhappy, the decision can often be taken to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) before whom a hearing is held. In compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act, The ALJ eventually issues an initial decision, reconsideration of which can be sought; that is uncommon. The next appeal is to the full Commission; it eventually issues a decision, reconsideration of which can be sought. Next, an appeal can be taken to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Reconsideration of the Court's decision can be sought, and in some cases a further appeal can be taken to the Supreme Court, which happens infrequently.
Appeals to the courts are not easy, because they normally give an agency the benefit of the doubt. A frequently used phrase in judicial decisions is “a busy administrative agency can not be expected to dot every i or to cross every t.” Nevertheless, the Court sometimes finds error in a Commission decision, and remands it to the Commission for further work. If only a question of interpretation is involved, that can be handled by the Commission itself, subject to subsequent appeal to the Court. If the Court finds that there was an error by the ALJ, for example in rejecting material evidence, then the matter is generally further remanded by the Commission to the ALJ to fix the problem; followed, quite possibly, by a further appeal to the Commission and thence to the Court, ad infinitum or so it seems
Although necessary under the Administrative Procedure Act, and often a good thing, these proceedings can take time. I vividly recall a proceeding involving a request for permission to make a major modification to the technical facilities of a television station. I participated in it, opposing the modification. The proceeding involved an application for a construction permit, a “petition to deny,” a designation for hearing, a hearing, an initial decision, an appeal to the Review Board (the Review Board, an intermediate appellate authority, was later abolished), an appeal to the Commission, a remand to the ALJ for a new hearing, another decision by a different ALJ (the original ALJ had by then retired), another appeal to the Review Board, and another appeal to the Commission. The proceeding lasted nearly twenty years and was eventually terminated when the proponent of the request decided that the modification would not help the station to make more money and dropped it. During the long process, ownership of the television station involved had changed twice.
Actions can also be initiated at the Commission level. These actions generally involve rule making proceedings. Sometimes they are initiated in response to a rule making petition, sometimes by the Commission sua sponte. The adoption of a new rule, or the modification of an existing rule, is a quasi legislative process, also governed by the Administrative Procedure Act. A rule making proceeding can easily take years to complete. Then the fun part starts.
Violation, or more accurately alleged violation, of a rule can result in lengthy litigation at the various levels of the Commission, with petitions for reconsideration and appeals ultimately to the full Commission. Challenges to the process under which the rule was adopted or to its substance generally are not considered by the Commission itself; these come when the final Commission decision is appealed to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Occasionally, the Court will decide that an error was made in the process through which the rule was adopted, that the rule is inconsistent with the Communications Act, that the rule cannot possibly be construed as the Commission construed it, or that the rule is incomprehensible. Then, the matter is generally remanded to the Commission to sort out with a new rule making proceeding and to undo the consequences of its ill advised action. Such decisions and remands are unusual, but they happen.
The point of all the above is that actions by Government agencies can be agonizingly slow and tedious.
Most actions of the Federal government are taken by the various agencies, be they administrative agencies, departments of the Executive Branch, or by the Judicial branch at all of its levels. If this is a problem, and it certainly makes expeditious action difficult in contested matters, there is no known cure. No President, even with a substantial staff, has either the time or the expertise to decide which of several companies should be allowed, for example, to build a new television station. Neither does the Congress.
The President can issue executive orders in some cases, and can ask the Congress to pass legislation which he favors. The Congress can itself initiate the legislative process which, if the President wishes, he can veto. Then the Congress can try to override the veto.
If a bill becomes law, it either appropriates funds for a project, most often to be administered and spent by one or more Government agencies, or it creates a new agency to do the job. This brings us back to the administrative process, referred to above.
Please do not assume that I deem these things completely wicked; they enable attorneys (such as myself) to put food on the table for our otherwise starving dependents, and offer similar opportunities to the agency staffs as well. There is something to be said for that, I reckon.
I suppose that the President could issue an Executive Order, “Let there be Light and Let it be Generated Only in a Carbon Neutral Way, with no Harm to the Economy.” Or, perhaps, “Let there be Universal Health Care, Superior to but Costing Less than is Now The Case.” He could also issue an Executive Orders proclaiming that “World Peace Shall Henceforth Exist” or that "No Snow Shall fall on Business Days." He would have to be an idiot, but I guess a president with a sufficiently egregious messianic complex could try.
Government is very big and very powerful; it is also clunky and slow and, despite campaign promises, there are structural and substantive reasons why it can't do everything promised by candidates efficiently and right now. That's the way it is, and it is not going to change, no matter how much we may wish that it would.