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Gary D. Bass, Ph.D. Headshot

Another Shameful Attack on Our Public Protections

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There they go again. Amid some of the most spectacular market failures the country has ever seen, business lobbyists and their friends in Congress want to reinvigorate their discredited deregulatory agenda.

They have such gall: for years, they have attacked regulatory protections to the point that government is significantly under-resourced. This, in turn, has led to deaths of workers, parents fearful about food safety and chemical contamination in their kids' toys, a national economic collapse, and much more. Now Big Business wants more of the same.

Big Business has published a new regulatory "hit list," the same old song but with a new beat - kill public protections or corporations won't create new jobs. Adding to the shameful behavior, on July 16, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) endorsed the idea of a moratorium on most new regulations.

What does this deregulatory fantasy land look like? No rules to correct the economic crisis spurred by unregulated, speculative behavior on Wall Street. No rules to address food safety. No rules on safety-be-damned coal mining companies. No rules on oil companies like BP, which, due to its unprecedented oil disaster, has cost small businesses in the Gulf region millions in lost profits and has surely changed lives and the environment there for years to come. It is a government that is encouraged to continue cutting regulatory corners for the benefit of Big Business and to enforce existing rules with the bite of a toothless tiger.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is but one player in this deregulatory game. The Chamber continually complains that government regulation is hurting job creation but provides little hard evidence to back up its assertions. Nevertheless, the group claims that the regulatory burden on business has "reached a tipping point" and is playing its trump card: jobs "will simply disappear or be sent offshore" unless the Chamber and its members get what they want.

This argument might be shrugged off if it wasn't so insensitive to Americans at a time when the lack of regulation has caused injuries, deaths, and a massive loss of wealth, and if it didn't fly in the face of facts. As Steven Pearlstein points out in his June 25 Washington Post column, "[W]e now have plenty of experience to indicate that even when taxes and regulatory costs are cut, companies are just as apt to use the money to increase compensation for top executives, or pay out higher dividends to investors, or mindlessly bid up the price of other financial assets, as they are to invest in genuine growth-enhancing new products and processes."

In fact, when done right, regulation promotes economic stability and protects jobs. Had proper regulations been in place, the BP oil spill might not have occurred, saving thousands of jobs in the Gulf Coast region. Had adequate regulations been in force, the financial meltdown would have been far more limited, and far fewer jobs would have been destroyed in the process.

In spite of all the evidence supporting the case for strong, effective public protections, the Chamber is not alone in pushing the anti-regulatory meme. Business representatives, in their capacity as members of the Business Roundtable, prepared a regulatory hit list and met with top advisers to President Obama, the Wall Street Journal reported July 12. Meetings are one thing, but it turns out that Peter Orszag, Obama's departing budget director, invited Big Business to prepare its hit list. What was the administration thinking?

One of the top targets on the Business Roundtable's list is the Obama administration's temporary moratorium on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Roundtable's representatives perversely argued that the Gulf region couldn't afford to thoughtfully reevaluate drilling at a time when the BP spill's effects are ravaging the Gulf economy. It's "Drill Baby, Drill" all over again, consequences be damned.

But they didn't stop there. They balked at: workplace safety standards, even after 29 miners died in an April explosion in West Virginia; food safety legislation, even as foodborne illness outbreaks continue to sicken millions; financial reform, even after taxpayers had to rescue corporations from their greed-fueled transgressions; and coal ash regulation, even after 5.4 million cubic yards of wet coal ash spilled and devastated a community in Tennessee.

In all, the Business Roundtable fingered more than 200 policies touching nearly every aspect of American society. They painted their vision of a world with virtually no regulation - an unfettered marketplace that treats public health and welfare as just another commodity.

We've seen this kind of attack before. The 1994 Contract with America, the anti-government partnership between Big Business and political candidates, aimed to restore "the faith and trust of the American people in their government" by defunding government. We saw the results of this attack on government play out during the presidency of George W. Bush. The only good regulation was deregulation. Bush appointed foxes to guard the henhouses when he selected former industry officials to run agencies. Science was relegated to the dustbin while corporations rewrote public protections to create a voluntary, self-policing state.

What was the cost of this unfettered free-market, pro-business stance - a stance many, including some business groups, grew leery of, then weary of, during the Bush presidency? No action on climate change. Increased incidences of salmonella, melamine, and E. coli contamination in food. Millions of defective products recalled. Spikes in coal mine fatalities. Nearly weekly accidents at oil refineries.

It's hard to say who should be more embarrassed: Big Business or the politicians that carry their water. The Business Roundtable and the Chamber, just two voices in a choir of lobbying groups complaining about the role of government, have picked an inappropriate time to push for deregulation.

By listening to this attack, elected officials show they are oblivious to the concerns of Americans who long for a government that can keep corporations in check and prevent disasters. For example, a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 65 percent of those surveyed favored more regulation of the oil industry, 57 percent supported more regulation of Wall Street firms, and 53 percent favored more regulation of big corporations. Additionally, a new Consumers Union poll shows 80 percent of Americans support a strong food safety bill that is awaiting action in the Senate.

Despite this overwhelming support for sensible safeguards, the voice of the people is being drowned out by the voice of Big Business. That is why OMB Watch is urging those who want someone to stand up for them to write to President Obama, asking him to support public protections for all Americans.

Big business has had its opportunity to speak. Now let's have ours.

Gary D. Bass is the executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog organization headquartered in Washington, DC.

Click here to send your letter to President Obama.

For even more on this issue, see Dan Froomkin's July 15 Huffington Post article.