New CPR Papers on Dysfunctional Regulatory Agencies, Costs of Delayed Regulations, and Moving Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis

by Matthew Freeman

October 30, 2009

One of the great political communications successes of the past 30 years has been the right wing’s relentless assault on the American regulatory system. Think of the words and images that have come to be associated with “regulation” in that time: red tape, bureaucrats, green eye shades, piles of paper stretching to the ceiling, and more. And the approach has worked – remarkably well, in fact, given the compelling imagery on the other side of the ledger:  children left to play in unregulated polluted waterways, power plants belching smoke into the air we breathe, foods that poison and drugs that induce heart attacks. Imagine if the producers of campaign commercials decided to dig into that Pandora’s Box of images!

Most of the attention that the regulatory system draws focuses on individual skirmishes – a fight over how and to what extent to regulate mercury, for example. Many of those are important fights, to be sure. But if it were possible to draw the camera back and take a snapshot of the entire regulatory structure in the context of its statutory mandate to protect Americans from health and safety hazards, and to protect the environment from abuse, the dynamic would look very different.

Viewed from that distance, each of the recent incidents of large-scale regulatory breakdown – peanut butter, spinach, Vioxx, rollover-prone SUVs, excessive air pollution, inaction on the very real challenge of mercury pollution, and only now the beginnings of action on climate change – each of these examples contributes to a much larger and often untold story: The regulatory system isn’t really working all that well. It’s had prominent successes – removing lead from gasoline, for example, and forcing automobile safety measures on a reluctant industry, to name just two.

But if we believe Congress meant what it said in the various “protective” statutes that the regulatory agencies enforce, we must conclude that the agencies are earning mediocre grades at best.

In a series of three white papers released this morning, CPR Member Scholars Catherine O’Neill, Sidney Shapiro, Amy Sinden, and Rena Steinzor, together with Policy Analysts James Goodwin, and Yee Huang take on three different aspects of what’s wrong with the federal regulatory system. They note that many of the agencies are simply dysfunctional – underfunded, beset by political interference, and operating under statutes written decades ago with a different set of problems in mind. They point out that the glacial pace of promulgating regulations exacts a profound toll, highlighting, among others, a regulation covering mercury pollution that has been in the works at EPA for almost two decades, while unchecked mercury pollution caused brain damage in hundreds of children each year. Finally, they call for the end of the reliance on cost-benefit analysis as the government’s principal means of regulatory impact analysis, urging instead the use of Pragmatic Regulatory Impact Analysis—a method that starts with the actual text of the statutes, rather than with the habit-forming reliance on cost-benefit analysis, a method imposed years ago by a White House bent on deregulating everything in sight.

The papers cover several of the key issues at stake in the regulatory arena, and while the Member Scholars are critical of the current state of regulatory affairs, the white papers, taken together, might reframe the issue. If the Obama Administration is to make good on its commitment to tighten up the regulatory system, better that the discussion be about how to prevent pollution and guard against hazards on the job than about how to make sure industry isn’t the slightest bit inconvenienced by health, safety and environmental standards.

Read more about the white papers, here.

Be the first to comment on this entry.
We ask for your email address so that we may follow up with you, ask you to clarify your comment in some way, or perhaps alert you to someone else's response. Only the name you supply and your comment will be displayed on the site to the public. Our blog is a forum for the exchange of ideas, and we hope to foster intelligent, interesting and respectful discussion. We do not apply an ideological screen, however, we reserve the right to remove blog posts we deem inappropriate for any reason, but particularly for language that we deem to be in the nature of a personal attack or otherwise offensive. If we remove a comment you've posted, and you want to know why, ask us (info@progressivereform.org) and we will tell you. If you see a post you regard as offensive, please let us know.

Also from Matthew Freeman

Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

CPR's 2018 Op-Eds, Part One

Freeman | Apr 11, 2018 | Regulatory Policy

What Creates the Cost, Mr. President?

Freeman | Jan 31, 2018 | Regulatory Policy

A Final 2017 Dose of Op-Eds

Freeman | Dec 28, 2017 | Regulatory Policy

Steinzor: Trump's reform won't stop mass incarceration

Freeman | Dec 21, 2017 | Good Government

Trump's Newspeak

Freeman | Dec 19, 2017 | Good Government

The Center for Progressive Reform

455 Massachusetts Ave., NW, #150-513
Washington, DC 20001
info@progressivereform.org
202.747.0698

© Center for Progressive Reform, 2015