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Rena Steinzor

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Bureaucracy Bashing, Obama-Style

Posted: 02/ 9/2012 3:23 pm

Political scientists have coined the term “bureaucracy bashing” to connote the temptation now rife among national politicians to beat up on the civil service for reasons that have nothing to do with reality.  Ronald Reagan pioneered this art form of disrespecting bureaucrats in the name of downsizing government, even as federal deficit spending on government programs he favored grew to epic proportions.  Ironically, President Obama has lifted the same hammer in an altogether unsuccessful effort to placate the conservative critics who claim the Reagan mantle.  His efforts to pal around with the right-wing are unlikely to win him many friends, and risk undermining the credibility of the government he so badly wants to lead into a second term.

The most recent example of the President’s penchant for bureaucracy bashing was the State of the Union’s “spilled milk” joke, which went over like a lead balloon -- even Michelle Obama did not crack a smile. Like other recent examples of President Obama’s bureaucracy bashing, this one wasn’t even true.

Consider the following episodes:

  • In January 2011, President Obama penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on regulatory policy, worrying about “regulations that conflict, that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb.” He provided a single specific example: “the FDA has long considered saccharin, the artificial sweetener, safe for people to consume. Yet for years, the EPA made companies treat saccharin like other dangerous chemicals. Well, if it goes in your coffee, it is not hazardous waste.” But though industry lobbyists had conjured up the image of a spilled truckload of Tab becoming a Superfund site, saccharin’s listing as a “hazardous substance” (because it causes cancer at high doses in rats) never actually created the problems imagined. The EPA did not have the time, the money, or lack of judgment to pursue such situations that could theoretically have been made Superfund sites, if they ever occurred.
  • In his January 2011 State of the Union, the President joked: “the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked." The President got a few laughs for poking fun at the intricacies of the federal bureaucracy, but once again, he got his facts wrong. On the West Coast, Pacific salmon are under the jurisdiction of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) whether they’re in fresh or saltwater, although  Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages a few hatcheries built to make up for habitat damage caused by the federal dams. On the East Coast, the agencies share responsibility for managing Atlantic salmon. One way to look at the arrangement is that the agencies cooperate, bringing their respective expertise to the table. Instead the President made a cheap joke. NOAA even issued a document effectively correcting the President when he repeated the joke this year. (In reality, the government’s policies on salmon are indeed flawed, but for reasons unconnected to the President’s joke about government being just too complicated.)
  • As for the spilled milk joke,  President Obama said: “We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill -- because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk. Now, I’m confident a farmer can contain a milk spill without a federal agency looking over his shoulder.”  Once again, bad joke but worse fact-checking. The rule could, theoretically, have forced farmers to bear that expense -- but EPA has never, and was never going, to enforce it that way. The EPA actually spent considerable time and effort in the spring of 2011 correcting the misimpressions about the history, an effort now scuttled by the President’s cheap shot. And though milk spills do actually pose environmental problems, the EPA felt it didn’t need to regulate the milk tanks -- not because it simply trusts the free market, but because farmers monitor the operation of the tanks, including their physical integrity, as required by the Department of Agriculture.

The real harm from such rhetoric is that it undercuts the agencies and their efforts to protect Americans from a range of genuine hazards -- not spilled milk, but air and water pollution that takes lives by the thousands every year. By casting regulatory agencies and the people who work there as tin-eared buffoons, the President makes it all the harder for the agencies and their advocates to get the political support they need to adopt badly needed safeguards. We’ve already got enough right-wingers, lobbyists and corporate shills out there trying to make the federal protector agencies and the civil servants who staff them look silly.

To his credit, the President does regularly make a case for the necessity of basic public protections; in the State of the Union, for example, he said:

I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago. I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury pollution, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean. I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men.

As befits his talents and his office, the President should stop channeling stand-up comics and start being more judicious about regulation and regulators.  It’s his government now, and talking about its achievements is a far better way to win people over.