Uncle Sam's best move in 50 years? Marshall Plan.

A group of professors rate the federal government's biggest successes since 1944. There were some surprises.

America's costly effort to rebuild Europe after World War II may rank as the greatest achievement of the federal government in the past half-century.

A new survey of 450 professors of history and political science ranks the Marshall Plan, designed to put war-torn Europe back on its feet, as Washington's most successful program since 1944.

The plan, named after Gen. George Marshall (then secretary of State), was launched at a time of growing fear of communism. General Marshall said the program was meant to create a European and world economy in which "free institutions can exist."

The study of "greatest achievements" was released Wednesday by Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Surveying a half-century of ambitious and costly federal initiatives, Mr. Light says that sometimes Washington failed, but "it is difficult not to be proud of what the federal government has tried to achieve these past 50 years."

"Name a significant domestic or foreign problem ... and the federal government made some effort to solve it," he says.

Light's research explored more than 500 major federal laws. Some, like efforts to control immigration and to reform the tax code, were flops, according to the survey. But many were judged to be tremendous successes.

After the Marshall Plan, the greatest achievements included expanding the right to vote, promoting equal access to public facilities, reducing disease, and lessening workplace discrimination.

This list comes with a cautionary note from Light. Of the 230 historians and 220 political scientists surveyed, 82 percent were either Democrats or independents who leaned Democratic. They were also mostly male (77 percent) and white (90 percent).

This mixture "mirrors the current face of the American professorate," the study reports, but it is obviously not a balanced cross-section of America's population. Yet in comparing responses from professors included in the study - whether conservatives or liberals - there was generally wide agreement about what was important, and what constituted success.

There were exceptions, however. If Republicans were better represented, then "containing communism" would have made it to the top 10. In Light's list, it was No. 14. Republicans also gave more importance than Democrats to reforming the tax code, controlling immigration, expanding trade, and moving more responsibility out of Washington and into the states.

Light says he was surprised by the study in several ways. First, the Marshall Plan's No. 1 position was unexpected. Yet 80 percent of the historians and political scientists said that the Marshall Plan was "very important," and 82 percent agreed that it was "very successful" - easily the highest score for any federal program in the past half-century.

Light was also surprised by the high rank (No. 7) for the nation's highway program. Though the Interstates launched by former President Eisenhower have been an economic boon for the US, Light notes that the highways have also fostered numerous problems, such as suburban sprawl and higher energy consumption.

Light, who once worked for Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, was personally disappointed that America's exploration of outer space ranked only No. 25.

The study suggests a couple important lessons for the incoming president and Congress, including the need for sustained effort. "This says to [President-elect] Bush and Congress, you don't have to do a lot to be successful," explains Light. "You continue where previous Congresses and presidents have built. A lot of success is persevering and continuing with programs already started by others. You do not have to reinvent the wheel."

The report also notes that no one party, president, or Congress can usually be given primary credit for successful programs. Most big successes are joint efforts. As the study says: "Government's greatest endeavors reflect a stunning level of bipartisan commitment.... Great endeavors appear to require equally great consensus."

In the new Congress - divided almost equally between Republicans and Democrats - that could be useful guidance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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