Government Tasks / Actions

This page is not so much an essay as a reference. I recurrently need this information inserted into something else I am writing; rather than write it a thousand times I am going to put this doc here to link to.

There are some 330 million Americans. The United States covers 3.797 million square miles / 2.27 billion acres of land and water.

The Government of the United States has responsibilities to every one of these citizens over every single acre. The government’s duty to the citizens, per the United States Constitution (2 separate mentions) is to “…provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare…”

Virtually none of the things the government does are specifically spelled out in the Constitution. It’s not that sort of a document. Instead, we were given the above broad statement plus, under the specified powers of Congress, the following instructions:

1: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, DutiesImposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all DutiesImposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

(16 specific groups of responsibilities, and)

18: To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

So that is how the Government of the United States came to perform, among other things, the following specific tasks:

The Federal government manages and maintains over 164,000 miles of highway, among the over 4 million miles of highways and byways in the United States.

The Federal government built, regulates, manages, and maintains over 12,000 miles of navigable, freight carrying waterways. There are 29 locks and dams on the Mississippi river and another 21 on the Ohio. Waterway freight is the most energy efficient freight system in America. The vast majority of the United States’s agricultural exports travel down government built and maintained waterways.

The entire United States, every square mile, is covered by air traffic control radar. Every square mile of radar coverage is monitored by 15,000 living, human, federal employees, 24 hours of every day.

If that radar and those air traffic controllers were not there the 87,000 daily flights of the United States air transportation and freight system would have to shut down immediately. The only alternative would be mass carnage in the skies and on the ground.

It appears that not even the Pentagon knows exactly how many military bases the United States Government operates worldwide, but here is a map of the nations where we have a military presence.

GPS satellite network

We have satellites in space; we have submarines beneath the oceans of the world. We have nuclear powered aircraft carriers ranging the oceans of the world.

The GPS in your phone or your car gets its location information from satellites launched, maintained, and operated by the United States Government.

The Department of Energy is responsible for the safety and security of enough nuclear weapons to end human life hundreds of times over. I have seen the number of nuclear warheads the department is responsible for variously reported as 64,000, 77,000, fewer and more. I’m not sure anybody knows exactly. Besides the active nuclear weapons the Department of Energy manages three nuclear laboratories and all the fissionable material and nuclear waste in the country, with the objective of keeping it out of the hands of our enemies. One small error could spell the end of one or more large cities.

Besides all this the Department of Energy is responsible for cleaning up the nuclear wastelands left over from over 50 years of nuclear weapon design, testing, and manufacture. This government agency decontaminates and decommissions nuclear facilities which have outlived their usefulness and attempts to keep the radioactive materials out of the water, land, and air which American citizens require to live.

Just one Federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, operates and maintains some 340 major dams in the American West, providing drinking, irrigation, household and commercial use water for virtually the entire half the nation between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, along with outdoor recreation for millions of Americans each year.

Before the Bureau of Reclamation existed nearly all the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean – the western half of the country – was sparsely populated desert. This desert could not support any more people than it already had because there wasn’t any water to drink, to wash in, or to grow food. Republican President Teddy Roosevelt got Congress to create the Bureau of Reclamation with the idea that the west could be turned into farmland. With the exception of California’s Central Valley that’s not exactly how it turned out.

The cities that make up today’s US West could not exist without the Bureau of Reclamation. Not only could they not have been built, they could not exist for one week, starting right now, if the Bureau of Reclamation were shut down.

Aerial view of the Phoenix downtown skyline with the midtown skyline behind as well as North Mountain and other mountains in the background.

Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles – gone. If the Bureau of Reclamation were shut down overnight, there is no guarantee that Phoenix could even be evacuated in an orderly fashion before water stress hit. All the water, all the time, every day, that makes these giant cities possible, is delivered by the federal government through taxpayer-supported plumbing.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has been providing flood control for private property in the Mississippi and Sacramento River valleys since 1928, including tributaries of the Misssissippi, which include such rivers as the Missouri and the Ohio. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers alone count for some 4,000 miles of flood control structures (with the Missouri, by the way, slightly the longer of the two.) The Missouri River is impounded in six places along its main stem, vast lakes over a thousand miles in total length.  These six dams provide flood control, electric power generation, recreation, and irrigation water for people from Canada to St. Louis. They are, needless to say, parts of the Federal Government.

That’s just one river. The Corps of Engineers manages flood control and water projects across the nation, from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Columbia River. Each of these major systems is comparable to the description above.

When that flood control fails (which it always has done from time to time) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) comes in and feeds people, houses them, and keeps them alive. While FEMA is the butt of a million jokes, it has also saved easily a million lives.

The United States Government provides assistance to farmers across the nation and has since the Lincoln administration. This assistance comes in the form of insurance, land management information, research, educational materials – if you’re not hungry and thank a farmer, thank the Federal Government too, because they’ve been helping that farmer produce since the Civil War.

Besides assisting farmers the United States Department of Agriculture inspects for safety and cleanliness the meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and egg products eaten by American consumers. Without an equivalent agency, China a few years ago experienced mass child deaths caused by contaminated milk. The United States government works to prevent events like that from happening here.

Federal Civil Service employees maintain the runway lights on every major airport in the United States.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) invented the Internet.

The United States Government interacts on behalf of its citizens with the other 194 nations on Earth. Our State Department maintains 307 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world, where besides interacting with the local governments they provide services and assistance to US citizens should they find themselves in need or distress.

The government operates 168 VA Hospital / Medical Centers and 1,053 outpatient facilities, caring for some 8.9 million veterans a year. (As of July, 2016)

The Food and Drug Administration inspects and assures safety of food, drugs, our blood supply, nuclear medicine products, medical devices, cosmetics, and animal and veterinary medicines. Before the FDA we had snake oil salesmen and “medicines” containing mercury.

About 35.3 million, or over 10%, of Americans use Corps of Engineer recreational sites and facilities every year. The Corps provides and manages over 12 million acres of recreational land, with 4,263 separate sites at 423 different projects. The corps maintains over 55,000 miles of shoreline, 91,000 campsites, over 4,600 miles of trails, almost 3,500 boat ramps, and one-third of all the freshwater fishing in the United States. Corps lakes host 20,000 fishing tournaments a year.

The Corp, at its recreation facilities alone, has about one billion dollars worth of fixed assets. There are 500 private businesses operating concessions on Corps lands, 350,000 jobs associated with Corp-operated recreation, and 18 million dollars spent every year by visitors enjoying the facilities.

The United States government shares operation of an international space station 250 miles above us, rounding the earth every hour and a half, moving some 17,000 miles an hour. Although private contractors now get paid for providing launch facilities to move scientists and material up and back, without the federally operated space station up there they wouldn’t have much business.

The Meals on Wheels program provides over 215 million meals a year to some 2.5 million homebound Americans.

The federal government operates 102 federal prisons and employs about 120,000 law enforcement officers.

The United States Postal Service provides letter and package pick-up and delivery service to every address in the United States. The Postal Service operates 31,585 post offices, at least one in nearly every city and town in the nation. Postal employees visit nearly every address in the entire nation every day, six days a week, to deliver mail and pick up any outgoing mail the resident may have. The Post Office directly employs over half a million career employees.

It is interesting to note that, of all the services in this list, the Post Office is directly required by the Constitution. “Establishing Post Offices and Post Roads” is one of the 16 Congressional responsibilities I skipped over earlier in this essay. In spite of this, Congress has semi-privatized the Post Office and indulges much public hand-wringing over the cost of providing this required service to Americans.

The United States government owns and manages some 640 million acres of land. The United States already owned land before the Constitution was written, and this ownership, like the Post Office, is expressly provided for in the Constitution, where Article IV Section 3 par. 2 reads,

2: The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

The United States government secures over 5,500 miles of land border with neighboring nations and 12, 383 miles of coastline which, with its twists and turns,actually consists of over 95,000 miles of shoreline.

This list only scratches the surface of federal government activities and responsibilities.

The United States Government is big. It is always going to be big. The United States is a big country.

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3 thoughts on “Government Tasks / Actions”

  1. WOW! Thank you for gathering all of these statistics. I’d like to choose some parts of this info to incorporate into a Letter to the Editor for our local paper (and maybe beyond), since I live in an anti-government state (and our county is about half anti-government). It is easy to forget or overlook how much our federal government does for us!

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