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'G.M. Flaw' and the Deeply Flawed Regulatory System

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"U.S. Agency Knew About G.M. Flaw But Did Not Act," was the front-page headline of the New York Times this week. The article told of a memo released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee that related how scandalously, shamefully the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "ignored or dismissed warnings for more than a decade about a faulty ignition switch" in General Motors cars.

"Federal regulators decided not to open an inquiry on the ignitions of Chevrolet Cobalts and other cars even after their own investigators reported in 2007 "knowing about fatal crashes, complaints and reports of a defect in the autos, said the article. It continued that in 2010 the agency "came to the same decision" -- not to do anything -- "after receiving more reports" about the fatal problem.

A separate article on the front-page of the Times' business section, "Carmakers' Close Ties to Regulator Scrutinized," reported on "former top N.H.T.S.A. officials who now represent companies they were once responsible for regulating, part of a well-established migration from regulator to the regulated in Washington." The "revolving door between the agency and the automotive industry is once again coming under scrutiny as lawmakers investigate the decade-long failure by General Motors and safety regulators to act more aggressively."

In fact, the words "G.M. Flaw" could be substituted for by "G.E. Flaw" in its nuclear plants -- like the G.E. plants at Fukushima and the dozens of the same fault-plagued model that are still operating in the U.S., or the words could be replaced by "Pollution Caused by Fracking" or "Poisons in Food."

From national administration to administration, corporations have run roughshod and those who are supposed to protect us from the danger and death these industries cause have regularly not done their jobs. Sometimes the situation is more pronounced as during the Reagan administration -- a thoroughly obvious time of foxes guarding henhouses.

I wrote a book about this extreme situation. The book jacket highlighted some of the Reagan foxes: Rita LaValle, a PR person for Aerojet General Corp. involved in hazardous waste-dumping and water pollution, who became director of the "Superfund" program; John Todhunter, an opponent of restrictions on pesticides with the chemical industry-financed American Council on Science and Health, who became assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances at EPA; Kathleen Bennett, who as a lobbyist for the paper industry fought the Clean Air Act, named assistant EPA administrator for air pollution control programs and supervisor of the Clean Air Act; and on and on.

This sort of thing has an early history. In a chapter titled "Why the Supposed Protectors Don't Protect," I related the story of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a physician who came to Washington in 1882 to become chief chemist for the Department of Agriculture. The U.S. was undergoing a transition from a rural country to an increasingly industrial society with industries arising that processed food -- food commonly doused with dangerous chemicals. Wiley endeavored to do something about this. He was a leader in working for pure food legislation and between his efforts and those of Progressive Era reformers and the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came passage of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

The act, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, defined as adulterated foods those containing "any added poisonous or other added deleterious ingredient which may render such article injurious to health." Wiley, who the U.S. government honored in 1956 with a postage stamp picturing him and has described as the "father of food and drug regulation," tried to enforce the law as head of the Bureau of Chemistry of the Department of Agriculture, predecessor agency to the Food and Drug Administration, but found that all but impossible.

As a matter of conscience, Wiley resigned from the U.S. government in 1912 and wrote a book, The History of a Crime Against the Food Law." The law intended to protect the health of people was "perverted to protect adulteration of food," he wrote.

"There is a distinct tendency to put regulations and rules for the enforcement of the law into the hands of industries engaged in food and drug activities," declared Wiley. "I consider this one of the most pernicious threats to pure food and drugs. Business is making rapid strides in the control of all our affairs. When we permit business in general to regulate the quality and character of our food and drug supplies, we are treading upon very dangerous ground. It is always advisable to consult businessmen and take such advice as they give that is unbiased, because of the intimate knowledge they have of the processes involved. It is never advisable to surrender entirely food and drug control to business interests."

Throughout the many decades since, government control, regulation, has been surrendered, in part and sometimes entirely, to business interests. This includes not only the food and drug industries but the auto industry, the nuclear industry, now the gas industry for the toxic process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, and on and on.

I titled my 1983 book The Poison Conspiracy and began it by writing about how "the world is being poisoned," lives are being lost and protection "by government is a sham." Those in government who are "supposed to protect us...do not because of the power of the industries" they are supposed to regulate. "These corporations have been able to warp, distort and neutralize those social mechanisms of protection."

For example, regarding nuclear power and Fukushima, Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission when the catastrophe began in 2011, was forced out in 2012 because of nuclear industry pressure after calling for the NRC to apply the "lessons learned" from the disaster. "I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened." Jaczko stated as the other four NRC commissioners rubber-stamped the construction in Georgia in 2012 of two new nuclear plants. Jaczko, said U.S. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, "led" a "fight" against those in the nuclear industry opposed to "strong, lasting safety regulations." And he paid the price.

And so do we -- whether we drive a G.M. Cobalt car or are impacted by the permitted radioactive emissions or accidental discharges from nuclear power plants or water contaminated by the fracking process or food loaded with genetically modified organisms, GMOs, and chemical poisons.

What's to be done? Our elected representatives aren't innocent in this. There are a few good ones, like Senator Markey, but overall those who on the elective level are supposed to watchdog the lame would-be regulators of the bureaucracies have in large measure been captured themselves by the monied corporate interests. "There is a deeply entrenched network" and the challenge to it "will not be easy," I conclude in The Poison Conspiracy. Most importantly, there needs to be intense grassroots activism to deal with, to remake, a system of government regulation long broken that needs to be, at long last, truly and fundamentally reformed.