There’s a lot of punditry left to be committed about whether and how the GOP majority in the House and the enhanced GOP minority in the Senate will work with the Obama Administration. I’m not optimistic. But even if the President and House Republicans are able to find some small patch of common ground, the hard reality that progressives need to swallow is that whatever major progressive legislation will bear Barack Obama’s signature has already become law, at least for his first term.
The same is not true, however, for what Barack Obama might accomplish simply by infusing the health and safety agencies in his Administration—from EPA to OSHA to FDA—with a sense of urgency, clearing away barriers to regulatory progress within his own White House, and insisting that the agencies enforce existing laws with newfound vigor. A string of catastrophes have shown that we need proactive government at least as much in these areas as we need cops on the beat in neighborhoods and airport security, even as Americans claim to hate government in a larger sense.
Resurrection of these agencies was a low priority for the President during his first two years. He made great appointments, but then left the agencies to cope with budget shortfalls and inadequate legal authority. As just one especially shocking example, FDA cannot order a recall of salmonella-poisoned food but instead must depend on the producer’s cooperation to get the food off the shelves. Worst of all, Cass Sunstein, his appointee to the post of “regulatory czar,” where he essentially supervises the agencies from the White House, has in many ways continued the Bush II pattern of red tape and neglect. “Yes we can” became “No we won’t” in too many instances. His small office continues to serve as a lobby for any powerful business interest—from coal companies to chemical manufacturers—intent on consigning the cops to desk duty.
Republicans followed the pattern of the Bush II Administration, screaming about overregulation and even going so far as to protest the rough treatment of British Petroleum in the Gulf. As usual, they gained traction by ranting against government writ large, not by acknowledging the need—no, the expectation and rock-solid demand—that these first-line responders keep Americans safe.
The predictable result was a mixed record--some regulators seized the opportunity and moved briskly ahead. Others bogged down.
All of that is squarely within the President’s power to fix. But will he?
On the assumption that the President does in fact want to squeeze as much progress out of his first term as possible, a number of Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholars (Holly Doremus, Dan Farber, Christine Klein, Tom McGarity, Catherine O’Neill, and Sidney Shapiro) brainstormed some suggestions, and here are the highlights of those discussions.
By far the most important initiative is to reinvigorate enforcement across the board, especially with respect to criminal violations. Enforcement—especially criminal enforcement—produces tremendous bang for limited bucks because it gives white collar executives ample incentive to prevent practices that, quite literally, kill people. The Administration’s track record is agonizingly weak. Consider the outrageous case of Stewart Parnell, former president of the Peanut Corporation of America, who knowingly shipped product tainted with salmonella, killing nine and sickening thousands. In September, the AP reported that he was back as a consultant to the peanut industry, the Justice Department’s supposed criminal investigation of his company having languished for two years. In a similar vein, we await decisions by Justice regarding ongoing criminal investigations of BP and its executives, especially former CEO Tony Hayward, as well as Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, a chronic violator of mine safety laws whose negligent mine “safety” policies resulted in the death of 29 at the Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
The further beauty of enforcement is that it is immune from interference by corporate sympathizers in the House of Representatives. Taking cases of wrongdoing to court pulls the debate down from the ideological stratosphere of “big” government arguments to the hands-on practicality of the ways that greedy executives injure actual men, women and children with impunity.
Some more specific regulatory and executive action steps on which the President should move forward:
The battle for the future of the republic is far from over, no matter which group of strident partisans is on top this round. Meanwhile, back on the streets, the storefronts, rivers, and factory floors, Americans need government to protect them when they cannot protect themselves.