THE BLOG
06/30/2016 09:05 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2017

This is what it looks like when government just works

Both sides of the Brexit debate would contend that our system of government is deeply damaged, and that especially the bond of trust between government and citizens has become imperilled.

But what does it look like when government works the way it's supposed to? Quick to act, practical in its thinking, momentous in its impact?

Look no further than the dispute about microbeads, the tiny bits of plastic making headlines all over the world for killing fish. The beads are used as abrasives and exfoliants in hundreds of toothpastes, face scrubs and body washes, and each use can send tens of thousands down the pipes and out into the sea.

In the US alone, some 11billion microbeads are pumped into the nation's waters every day. Although not toxic in themselves, they absorb harmful chemicals before being swallowed by fish, bringing the toxins into the food chain.

A ban was first proposed in Europe in 2013 and has been supported by the governments of half a dozen EU countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Italy and - as of last week - the UK, so far to no avail. The wrangling continues as some countries and industry groups lobby instead for the ban to be voluntary.

Meanwhile, an American ban has sailed unopposed through the notoriously partisan House of Representatives, been signed by Barack Obama and comes into force next year. Initially proposed by a Democrat, it went through the Republican-controlled House under 'suspension of the rules' - a set of measures for non-controversial legislation, and passed the Senate a week later by unanimous consent.

How was it possible?

1. The bill's proponent kept it out of partisan politics

Although the ban was conceived by the environmental staff of Democrat Frank Pallone and was proposed by him, it was carried through in collaboration with the Republican Fred Upton, both of them acting on the concerns of their immediate constituents. Pallone is from a coastal district in New Jersey and made his name campaigning for environmental protection, while Upton's district is in Michigan, where the Great Lakes had become the most prominent site for reports on microbead pollution.

Highly publicised studies by the State University of New York found up to a million microbeads per square mile of the Lakes, and debate on the topic was focussed there.

Moreover, Pallone and Upton were in a position to make sure their bipartisan bill got traction: it fell under the remit of the Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Upton is the chair and Pallone is the most senior Democrat.

2. They got the influencers on side

The team won the unlikely support of both the environmental and industry lobbies. While the environmental groups were natural allies, the main industry group, the Personal Care Products Council, backed the ban in the name of stability. That was because the alternative was an unmanageable hodgepodge of legislation at the state and county levels, each with its own definition of which microbeads were to be banned and its own timeline for removing them.

Illinois - another Great Lakes state - passed a ban just as the federal ban was first proposed, and more than half the other states were considering them. So industry groups were happy to collaborate on and support a single federal ban that would be strong enough to satisfy the environmental concerns while giving them time to remove the microbeads from their production lines.

3. The public conversation worked the way it's supposed to

By the time Pallone first proposed the bill, the momentum for a ban on what would otherwise be an obscure industrial ingredient had already been built. NGOs around the world had been campaigning against them for several years, and in 2013 the United Nations Environment Program had been convinced to support an international smartphone app that let shoppers scan the products on supermarket shelves for whether they contained microbeads.

That meant that by the time the ban was proposed, all the major companies had announced initiatives to phase them out. It also meant that the scientific evidence for a ban had already been collected. The studies carried out in the Great Lakes came to the attention to the public servants in Pallone's office through reports on NPR and other outlets, and they then contacted the academics cited in them.

Overall, the microbead ban demonstrates how smoothly the democratic system can work. Reports on its passage have been few, because there is often little to say when nothing goes wrong. As the old dictum has it, 'Happiness writes white.' Nonetheless, the ban should and has motivated governments in Europe, Canada and elsewhere to hurry up their progress towards bans of their own. Although microbeads are only a small part of the 8million tonnes of plastic that are pumped into the world's oceans each year, the US ban shows that the much-maligned machinery of government is not only the only body capable of solving problems like this, but is already doing so.