This was originally published as an exclusive to Politico.
The litany of recent government regulatory failures -- the oil-gushing catastrophe on the Gulf Coast, financial agencies turning a blind eye to fraud and Wall Street excesses, the worst coal mine disaster in a quarter-century, undetected accelerator problems in Toyota automobiles and lax airline inspections -- has been disheartening.
These events have, understandably, contributed to a loss of confidence in our government and prompted increased congressional oversight. At the same time, alarm bells over steeply rising deficits have led to a call in some quarters for a freeze on government hiring and civil service salaries.
We cannot ignore either economics or politics, but neither can we fool ourselves into believing that the federal work force is the cause of, or the solution to, excessive federal spending. As history shows, any small, short-term budgetary gains from work force cutbacks are likely to be offset by serious regulatory missteps, more after-the-fact finger-pointing and a continuation of the cycle of failure and mistrust.
When Congress or the president creates a federal program, the decision requires a commitment to invest wisely in the federal civil servants who do the work. It means making sure agencies have the resources to protect the public from environmental harm and financial industry excesses; to effectively monitor mine, auto and airline safety; to defend the homeland; and to serve the public in many other areas.
While industry influence and lack of legal authority were factors in some recent regulatory lapses, erratic budgetary decisions also contributed to the problems -- with some agencies starved for funds and staffing even as their responsibilities and workloads grew. As we have seen vividly in the Gulf and in the financial arena, this has left agencies playing a constant game of catch-up -- often with dire consequences.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, had been understaffed as financial demands were growing. It lost 10 percent of its employees between 2005 and 2007, when funding levels were either flat or cut. The reduced staff -- combined with a laissez-faire enforcement approach -- certainly contributed to the unchecked Wall Street excesses that sank the economy.
According to the Interior Department's acting inspector general, the now-disgraced Minerals Management Service has only 60 inspectors to cover nearly 4,000 facilities in the Gulf of Mexico region. The IG also said the agency has had trouble hiring inspectors because oil and gas companies offer "considerably higher wages and bonuses." Eleven people died in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, and the spill has now become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, the Mine Safety and Health Administration was unable to put Massey Energy on its list of firms with patterns of serious violations -- a move that could have prompted tougher enforcement -- because the company was appealing the majority of the violations it had been cited for in the past year.
The independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission was responsible for handling these appeals, but the understaffed agency was overwhelmed by a backlog of 16,000 mine safety challenges. The explosion at the Massey mine in West Virginia this spring killed 29 miners.
In 1980, there were 146 million vehicles on the road and 119 people in enforcement at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Today, there are 256 million vehicles and only 57 enforcement officers, who dropped the ball in dealing with the sudden-acceleration problems of Toyotas.
In 2008, the inspector general for the Federal Aviation Administration reported that the disclosures about Southwest Airlines flying uninspected jetliners were, in part, due to the FAA's being unable to keep up with the inspections it had scheduled.
Some troubled agencies have received budget increases and have undergone reforms since encountering high-profile problems, but history can too easily repeat itself if we enter a cycle of potentially arbitrary cutbacks that leave regulators across the government understaffed and unprepared for the next disaster.
In this economic climate, with its soaring deficits, it's important to make smart choices about how to spend taxpayers' dollars. But we can't have it both ways -- reduced capacity and increased vigilance.
Shortsighted decisions that handcuff our civil servants can only lead to poor performance, a continued erosion of public trust and bad outcomes for the American people.
Max Stier is president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.