After two years in office, President Obama has decided it's time to fix one of the colossal mistakes of his predecessor: too much federal regulation.
I don't remember George W. Bush as a consumer advocate who, in his zeal to regulate corporations, got carried away. But last week President Obama announced a new priority for his administration. Federal regulations “sometimes have gotten out of balance, placing unreasonable burdens on business—burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs,” the President explained, implying that it was in fact the government that crippled our economy, just like pro-corporate conservatives have been saying.
Faced with this threat to our national security, there was only one thing to do, and Obama stepped up. He commanded the entire federal government to review every regulation on the books and get rid of “outdated” rules and “unnecessary paperwork.” In a rousing call to arms, the President concluded: “This is the lesson of our history: Our economy is not a zero-sum game. Regulations do have costs; often, as a country, we have to make tough decisions about whether those costs are necessary.”
Obama didn’t invent the cost/benefit approach to regulation. That was concocted by big business-funded think tanks and adopted by President Ronald Reagan, who issued Executive Order 12291 immediately after taking office in 1981. Its preface is eerily similar to Obama’s, proposing “to reduce the burdens of existing and future regulations, increase accountability for regulatory actions, provide for presidential oversight of the regulatory process, minimize duplication and conflict of regulations…”
Reagan demanded that any regulation that imposed costs on businesses that exceeded its "benefits" be eliminated. The problem is that cost/benefit analysis doesn’t always take into account certain intangible considerations or values that are difficult to quantify in dollars, such as the benefits of unpolluted water or the worth of a human being. In an infamous internal memo (PDF) uncovered in litigation over the now extinct Ford Pinto’s exploding gas tank, company executives compared the cost of fixing the vehicles ($137 million) versus what it would have to pay for expected deaths and injuries ($49.5 million) and decided that the cost of repairing each car - $11 dollars – exceeded the benefits.
Government is supposed to protect us against such reasoning, not use it as a guiding principle.
I was working at Public Citizen Congress Watch in Washington, D.C. at the time, and Reagan’s disdain for government regulation became the centerpiece of his Administration agenda. James Watt, Reagan’s controversial appointee to the Interior Department, sacked the agency, turning it into a mouthpiece for oil, mining and other industries supposedly regulated by the agency. The Reagan Administration’s deregulation of savings banks led to reckless investments, fraud and corruption, necessitating a bailout – sound familiar? – that ultimately cost taxpayers about $124 billion.
Is history repeating itself? In a nod to those who supported him as a candidate because of his forceful speeches against special interests and corporate abuses, President Obama was careful to acknowledge the importance of “child labor laws,” “the Clean Air Act” and federal rules against “hidden fees and penalties by credit card companies.” In a nod to the elephant in a pink dress sitting on the divan in our living rooms, the President noted that “a lack of proper oversight and transparency nearly led to the collapse of the financial markets and a full-scale Depression.” “Where necessary, we won't shy away from addressing obvious gaps” in federal rules, Obama insisted.
It's painfully obvious that the President hoped his foray into Reagan-style anti-regulation rhetoric would curry favor with Wall Street, its wholly-owned subsidiary, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and their toadies in Congress. They’ve been very, very mad at the President ever since he had the temerity to sign a toothless financial reform bill that left the financial industry free to revert to its pre-bailout speculative ways, not to mention the hopelessly compromised health care law that requires every American to buy health insurance from private insurance companies starting in 2014, but does not effectively regulate how much we have to pay them.
Obama went so far as to announce his new regulatory policy in a guest column for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, where at least one attack on Obama is on the menu every day.
This latest gesture of appeasement didn’t work out as the President hoped, though. "Yes, but" was the nearly universal response from the intended recipients of the President’s largesse, as Associated Press reporter Tom Raum reported. For your convenience, I’ve highlighted the “but factor”:
“Obama’s action is ‘a positive first step,’ said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business organization. But, Donohue added, ‘a robust and globally competitive economy requires fundamental reform of our broken regulatory system.’ He called on Congress to 'reclaim some of the authority it has delegated to agencies.’"
“The National Association of Manufacturers said it ‘appreciated’ Obama’s call for a regulatory review, but called for Obama to demonstrate results by ‘delaying poorly thought-out proposals that are costing jobs,’ listing the EPA’s proposals to regulate greenhouse gases as a prime example."
A “spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, called Obama’s review a welcome acknowledgment that government regulations have economic consequences. But he said the president should take bolder steps immediately.”
"David Walker, former U.S. comptroller general, said in an interview that it was ‘fully appropriate to engage in a baseline review of existing federal regulations.’ But Walker, head of a balanced-budget advocacy group called Comeback America Initiative, questioned having the agencies themselves hunt for harmful regulations. ‘We need to have an independent review process that has transparency,” he said. Walker said many of today’s regulations date back to the 1950s and need to be revamped.”
For a little conjunctional variety, here's the response of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor:
“Obama’s executive order ‘shows that he heard the same message I did in the last election - that Americans are sick and tired of Washington’s excessive overreach and overspending.’ ‘While I applaud his efforts, we must go further,’ Kantor added. He proposed more aggressive steps to strike down ‘needless and burdensome’ regulations that plague businesses and stifle job growth.”
President Obama still doesn’t understand that his political opponents will never voluntarily support anything he does, short of a complete capitulation (and perhaps not even then). This is not just a matter of interest to the political class. If the White House spends the next two years trying to placate the implacable, the rules, regulations and legislation needed to restore the economy and protect the public health and safety are never going to see daylight.
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