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Reagan said government was the problem...and paved the way for that to become a reality (AP, 1984 photo)

The BP disaster underscores government as the problem, not the solution

ASK THIS | June 14, 2010

After decades of planned neglect, mismanagement and ideological attack, the American government, across the board, has gotten out of the way of corporate America – and the country is paying a heavy price. Obama promised to make government service “cool” again. Ask him to show where he's doing that.

By Henry Banta

Is the BP disaster indicative of a problem in government extending well beyond one small agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior? We should be asking how badly the federal bureaucracy has been damaged by decades of neglect, mismanagement and anti-government ideology.
So far the primary federal culprit behind the BP environmental disaster is the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service – MMS. Its failings, both past and present, have made it a favorite media target over the last six weeks. From sex and drugs to serial exemptions from environmental reviews, MMS has come to represent everyone’s worst fears about bureaucratic incompetence, and the media are now making the connection that this “incompetence” has been in the service of the interests of the oil industry.
The press has done an admirable (albeit belated) job with the technical complexities of MMS’s administrative failings. What is not being asked, and what the press needs to focus on, is whether MMS’s problems are endemic to the entire federal government.
When he became Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar claimed to understand the problems at MMS. Yet he reacted as if the agency’s problems, detailed in report after report and article after article, are the isolated acts of a few bad apples, not an agency-wide infection, and he apparently continues to believe that. The Secretary’s early reform efforts, greeted with fanfare and applause when announced, seem, in retrospect, meager and cosmetic.
The very tragedy of the BP story underlined that the “cultural problem” at MMS extends well beyond a handful of bureaucrats wining and dining on industry’s dime. Where were the rest of the regulators, and why they weren’t protecting the public’s interest? Unfortunately, the regulators were exactly where they were intended to be: serving the interests they were trained to serve. The sad truth is that the middle manager career bureaucrats – those who might have warned Secretary Salazar or his hapless former MMS director – likely would not have even recognized the bias in their standard operating procedures.
Is MMS more typical than unique in its approach to meeting its regulatory responsibilities? Articles about regulatory capture – federal agencies beholden to regulated industries – were becoming almost ho-hum; the FDA, the NRC, the DCAA (Defense Contract Auditing Agency), and so on. Worse, MMS is not unique in its contributory role to a national calamity. Who can ignore the contributions by the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission to the current economic crises? The BP explosion evidences that it is long past time for us to consider whether these dots are all connected. 
In 1980 Ronald Reagan famously announced, and often repeated, that the government was not the solution; the government was the problem. This slogan did not just discourage competent people from careers in regulatory agencies, it represented a new approach to regulation. Government regulation was no longer to be a constraint on business behavior. Government should not be an obstacle to all the good that could be achieved through unbridled enterprise. Regulators were to be active promoters of the businesses they were to regulate. Agreeing with President Coolidge, Reagan believed that “the business of America is business,” and the government should get out of the way. Industry self-regulation and “free market” economics became the substitute for government regulation.
Conservative political thinkers actually argued that it was impossible for government to impartially regulate in the interest of the public and the nation. For decades they have held that all government is bad and less is always better. As a result we had decades of indifferent and incompetent leadership in the regulatory agencies. In recent years they have frequently been staffed with people hostile to their basic purpose.
Indeed if it does anything, the disaster in the Gulf demonstrates the folly of this approach to government. And the lesson is reinforced by the cries for help from the conservative political leadership of the Gulf Coast states – who in the past led the charge for smaller and less intrusive government. Beyond all question it demonstrates the need for competent regulation that is not controlled by the interests it is supposed to regulate. It destroys the simplistic notion that the interests of business coincide with those of the broader community.
In his campaign for president, Obama promised to make government service “cool” again. The model for this is what was accomplished by those who led us out of the Great Depression and to victory in WWII. But as president, Obama has a long way to go. He must recruit and inspire a whole new crop of middle managers imbued with a positive attitude toward government service. Budget problems should not stand in the way. Given what has happened to the economy, government jobs have become quite attractive, at least in terms of compensation. What is needed is leadership – which unfortunately will come too late for the Gulf.

Posted by Jack
06/14/2010, 06:58 PM

In the clubby world of back slapping and mutual admiration it is generally the rule that one must pay to play in the game. The club referred to as the White House press corps demonstrate on a regular basis that they pay with their integrity and get to hang out with the hjoi poloi in return.

Posted by Justaperson
06/14/2010, 07:00 PM

The government failure is evident in many cases, I think that 9/11 could have been prevented with a better intelligence service, to Kathrina if the infrastructure had been maintained, to the recent financial troubles if the banks would have been more controlled. All that is water under the bridge, and I imagine Obama having good intentions but walking into walls.
I am just a simple person and did not study political science or anything like that, but I know that one thing is painfully absent in this country, and that is activism, the only ones that I see pushing for their causes are evangelist and gun advocates. We the people need to become more unified and get off of our fat behinds and do something. Be it FDA, EPA, ohh, don't let me rant on.
Thank you for writing this wonderful article, I will be sure to give it to my High Schooler to read.

Posted by Dave
06/14/2010, 07:19 PM

The amount of oil released so far would fuel US consumption for mere days, weeks at best. So we need to ask ourselves whether it's worth the potential devastation of 200+ miles of coastline along with the eradication of generations of species for the sake of running our modern civilization. Because of this, emergency procedures and technologies must be in place *before* the exploration or drilling of deep-water reserves. Such practices should not be allowed until we have such plans in place. Making them up on the fly is a disgusting, self-imposed tragedy that should make us all feel ashamed. BP for complacency, and the US for its apathetic hunger for resources.

Posted by Spaced
06/14/2010, 07:22 PM

One of Obama's big probs is that he has too many Clinton-Gore-Kerry era advisors and staff that also participated in outsourcing government functions in both DOD and NASA in the 90's which wasn't cheaper or better or faster.

And they're still pushing that less NASA is cheaper - at least in Obama's NASA with the push for commercializing astronaut transport (or outsourcing it to Russia).

Although the Bush NASA new space program was a badNASA bummble, instead of developing a better program, the current Obama plan is just as bad.

And this whole BP fiasco doesn't seem to have fazed the Obama NASA and OSTP appointees in the least.

Regan began this downward spiral
Posted by Feliz Navidad
06/14/2010, 07:25 PM

You have it on the money. Government is failing, because we have insisted upon it. Going back to the 1970's, I have observed that Republicans deliberately try to break government, so they can prove their point that it doesn't work. It's a ploy they use again and again. While there is no government, they run amok, doing anything for a short-term profit. Jimmy Carter urged the American people to wean themselves from oil dependency -- and come up with a plan to ensure it. This is the real reason he lost the election. Especially the part about the 55 mile an hour limit on federal highways -- which I, for one, think we should return to. NOW. Also a nice high tax on gasoline, with the receipts going soly to rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.

Posted by sgmorr
06/14/2010, 07:26 PM

BP and BP alone is responsible. They cut the corners. They had the engineers who knew better. It is in no way the government's fault. BP knew how to drill this thing right and cement it correctly and keep the blowout preventer serviced correctly and put the plugs in correctly and they didn't do it.

Say what you want to about MMS, but BP created this disaster.

Posted by TheRef
06/14/2010, 07:48 PM

sgmoor has it exactly right. This is a BP caused crisis. It has to do with the morals, ethics and honesty of business performance, nothing else. The company tried to cut corners ...get by on the cheap. Once the well exploded, they tried to PR their way out of the mess.

Another liberal elitist, with a brain!
Posted by Saladin
06/14/2010, 07:48 PM

Bravo, Mr. Banta. Big business has to be regulated, even a Republican (T. Roosevelt) knew that). Wave the dollar sign in front of them and they go for the meat on the stick every time. And then they profess this to be a Christian nation. What a pile of crap. One nation under God, ha. One nation under the bank account.

glad you said it
Posted by rick
06/14/2010, 07:51 PM

I've been thinking this for a while now. It's high time someone takes a big shotgun blast to Reagan's legacy.

Thank you.

Concerned citizen
Posted by Tom
06/14/2010, 07:56 PM

Yes, BP is fully responsible for the disaster. But, they had help. They knew no one was checking them. Their only goal was to raise the oil from the oil as cheaply as possible. They knew they could cut corners because they knew the MMS and EPA were powerless to force them to operate the rig safely. What I am truly surprised is how little corporate governance control their Board has demonstrated to date. Again, no oversight to protect the shareholders (the other big loosers)

Posted by Phil T.
06/14/2010, 08:00 PM

Saladin has it correct.

One nation, under the almighty dollar, with no accountability and kickbacks for all representatives.


U.S. Citizen
Posted by martin jones
06/14/2010, 08:11 PM

From 1938 to Carter the government was the solution,
And then came Reagan.

Posted by Matt
06/14/2010, 08:33 PM

You hit the nail on the head. Reagan was the first president I got to vote against, and I've never regretted it for a minute.

Rheortic != Reality
Posted by Andre
06/14/2010, 09:35 PM

You realize that using the rhetoric of smaller government has no correlation to actual policies. In fact, usually it's an inverse relationship. For example, Reagan actually increased the number of pages in the Federal Register, while most of the deregulation, such as the airline industry, happened during Carter's administration.

That awful man, named George W. Bush, while extolling the wonders of "free markets," instead, just like every Democrat and Republic, promoted corporatism, and passed the Medicare Prescription Act.

It is disingenuous to use the hypocritical lies of Republicans as evidence for the failures of a government. It does not matter who is running the ship; Regulators will always help their wealthiest friends and destroy any possibility of real competition.

Faulty Logic
Posted by Drew
06/14/2010, 09:47 PM

To take what Reagan said about the government getting too big and intervening too much, which was true, and to turn it into this article, is awkward alchemy at best.

Just because the govt operates inefficiently, and Reagan pointed that out, does not equate to conservatives seeking to make it work inefficiently.

Now Reagan did have some significant problematic contradictions... like saying he was for smaller govt and then growing govt, and for advocating financial responsibility but then accelerating public debt.

But say that he doomed govt into it's current culture of dysfunction is more than a stretch. It is patently dishonest, and simply a desperate grasp to politicize the oil spill which is an non-partisan tragedy on all fronts.

Now, all that being said, if Obama can become an efficiency manager and reform government to make it run better, I will be glad to congratulate him for it. Does anybody have an evidence to show that this is happening so far into his term? Anyone?

Right on
Posted by Cary Broder
06/14/2010, 10:27 PM

Outstanding. This is right on and what every American needs to hear.

The ideology put forth by Reagan has all but corroded the country from within. Thank you for articulating very well the message the entire country needs to hear gain and again.

Rewriting Economic History
Posted by Gary W. Longsine
06/14/2010, 10:58 PM

Paul Krugman has been writing about related topics in his blog.

Did the post-war system fail?
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/did-th ...

The title question is rhetorical, except to those trying to propagate the myth that economic growth has not slowed with the rise of trickle down economics, and deregulation that turned the financial services sector into an extractive industry, like mining.

Posted by Andy Newman
06/14/2010, 11:00 PM

It's well known than Dick Cheney recruited high-level regulatory appointees from the industries they were to regulate.

It's just another disastrous right wing policy.

Posted by Gus
06/14/2010, 11:17 PM

The very Governors who say the government is too big and too intrusive are the very governors who are now asking the feds for HELP. Ron Reagan was the worst President this country ever had. He decimated my profession... teaching. Thanks Ronnie. I'll never forget his "ketchup is a vegetable" rationalization.

Posted by ST
06/14/2010, 11:19 PM

I have two very significant questions I would like answers to regarding the Gulf oil gusher:
(1) I saw Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser on CNN tonight and learned that they do not have the equipment needed (i.e., vacuumes) to keep the oil out of the marshes and save birds so they are using residential shop vacs. Why? After 50+ days, and the fact that hazmat vacs have been in use for years, is BP not being ORDERED to blanket the coast with vacs to vac up oil (which floats to the surface)??? That is inexcusable. Every bird life and stretch of wetland saved is worth it.
(2) I learned from the President of the American Birding Association who also was on CNN that there are thousands of persons with experience treating oil spilled birds in groups like the International Bird Rescue and Audubon who have not been contacted to help out in the Gulf and that there are not enough people out there going out there early enough in the morning. What is going on? Why aren't these people being contacted and used?
Anyone with resources needs to look into these questions. Also we need to be screaming "VAC BABY VAC!!" with the same enthusiasm they got the drills out there on the offshore.

Posted by ST
06/14/2010, 11:19 PM

I have two very significant questions I would like answers to regarding the Gulf oil gusher:
(1) I saw Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser on CNN tonight and learned that they do not have the equipment needed (i.e., vacuumes) to keep the oil out of the marshes and save birds so they are using residential shop vacs. Why? After 50+ days, and the fact that hazmat vacs have been in use for years, is BP not being ORDERED to blanket the coast with vacs to vac up oil (which floats to the surface)??? That is inexcusable. Every bird life and stretch of wetland saved is worth it.
(2) I learned from the President of the American Birding Association who also was on CNN that there are thousands of persons with experience treating oil spilled birds in groups like the International Bird Rescue and Audubon who have not been contacted to help out in the Gulf and that there are not enough people out there going out there early enough in the morning. What is going on? Why aren't these people being contacted and used?
Anyone with resources needs to look into these questions. Also we need to be screaming "VAC BABY VAC!!" with the same enthusiasm they got the drills out there on the offshore.

Hellava good job, Brownie
Posted by Computer Geek
06/14/2010, 11:44 PM

Another question is about appointments based on faith, political affiliation and outright cronyism. Published reports showed that many appointments over the last 8 years were based on those criteria rather than competence or subject matter expertise. Once that type of culture has propagated through an organization, it will be extremely hard to 'weed out' those that should not be there and replace them with competent workers and administrators. I don't think the real damage that the previous administration has wrought has been apparent until the BP disaster. If this is just the tip of the iceberg, we are truly f%&@ed!

Stronger Whistleblower Protection and Accountability for Government
Posted by Laura Lair
06/14/2010, 11:46 PM

As a former EPA employee, I experienced government's heavy handed intimidating methods to suppress information. This is information had nothing to do with national security but with protecting public health and the environment.

Criminal charges should be brought against public employees once the whistleblower law is strengthened.

You blame Reagan for today's BP leak??
Posted by Ruggy
06/15/2010, 02:25 AM

If the regulatory agencies have gone completely to hell, it's not because of anything Reagan did 20 years ago. The blame is surely more recent.

Unless you are implying that Reagan was more powerful than the combined efforts of every president since then, which would be a fantastic invention indeed.

But I suppose that's one of your specialties as a lawyer - finding other people to blame.

Positive attitude toward government service?
Posted by Aaron
06/15/2010, 09:38 AM

That's hardly the issue. Bureaucracy by its very nature is inefficient as reports by people who do understand become watered down as they move up the chain to people who don't understand - the cronies of either party.

You can install a new crop of young ambitious types only to have the same patterns of rot and neglect set in. This is true both in the public and private sectors. In the private sector you refer to it as "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves."

Those who have a role in building a thing are more invested in it. The bureaucrats you praise of the Roosevelt era and up to Carter for some agencies were such men - builders with a mission. Competent people aspiring to more than middle management. Talented men and women are attracted to building a legacy, not being a cog in a machine built before they were born.

Most agencies were started with a mission and in response to a moment. Over time they merely exist for their own sake. Consider tearing down these institutions so that new ones with clear missions can operate unfettered. This attracts the quality of people you hope for. Not careers as middle managers.

Hostile to the Basic Purpose
Posted by Mike
06/16/2010, 12:29 AM

Quack, quack, quack... If it talks like a duck it probably is. At this moment the government is "staffed by people, hostile" to its basic purpose which (why do I always have to remind people?)is to govern within the constraints of the United States Constitution! From the President on down to my local Dog Catcher, government officials overreach their authority and act under color of misbegotten authority. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (notice happiness is not a given, only it's pursuit) that's why we hired them; if they refuse to do the job we have the right and duty to fire them! "First...the lawyers" said the Bard...they got us into this mess, they'll never have an idea for getting us out honestly. America's best days are still ahead! Buck up me hardies, there's a job yet to be done and we'll have to do it! All the BP spill proves is that Murphy works in mysterious ways. Any other analysis is pure, unadulterated sophistry! Be Honest darn it! I know you don't have any good examples, but you just oughta try it, the truth will set you free.

How much did BP pay you?
Posted by Dave
06/16/2010, 12:18 PM

We have the worst environmental tragedy in our nation's history, caused by an increasingly clear pattern of rig management ignoring and overriding it's own employees, contractors, and government inspectors, but you choose to blame who? Ronald Reagan?

How much did BP pay you to write such a delusional opinion as that? Implicating the government at all in this is irresponsible - let alone blaming an administration from decades ago.

Worse yet, how stupid are all these liberal readers who seem to be eating it up?

The oil leak is a current event - get it? There are people alive today, who need to be held accountable.

Blaming Reagan, who is long dead, is neither constructive nor honest.

Posted by Kirk Cornwell
06/17/2010, 06:27 PM

The Congress has outdone itself in grandstanding at the pillory for Mr. Hayward. All that was missing was the tomatoes. What turkeys -- the women especially.

backwards logic
Posted by Andrew
06/18/2010, 07:21 PM

Government is always the problem, what made this country successful was having a government that stayed out of the way for the most part. Government policy took a depression in the 30's and made it into the great depression. Government policy has devalued our dollar to the point that it is hardly worth the paper its printed on. Government policy is responsible for wars, regulations that protect major corporations by preventing competition, imprisoning more people than any other country, and the destruction of our freedoms across the board. To blame republicans, who differ only in name and rhetoric from the democrats, for the failures of government underscores a lack of understanding in the workings and motivations of an organization whos only means of accomplishing anything are theft and violence.
So, if the BP disaster underscores anything, let it be that Obama has received more money from BP than any other politician, and government, which has murdered more people than criminals and religion combined, doesnt really give a damn about a few seagulls and fish.

Posted by Tim Strinden
06/30/2010, 08:44 AM

This story is exactly right. I worked for three federal agencies for over 32 years as an auditor and inspector before retiring in 2008. I found that the agencies are completely controlled by the big businesses they are supposed to regulate. U.S. Customs has probably lost billions of dollars because it does not collect the duties it should and rarely collects penalties or interest on large importers. They let seriously non-compliant importers audit themselves through the Importer Self-Assessment (ISA) program. The management career path at Customs leads directly to the trade, with all five of the deputy commissioners from 1983 to 2004 going to work for Sandler & Travis Trade Advisory Services after leaving Customs. The last time I felt that management was at least trying to regulate industry properly was under the Carter administration.

Rolling Stone Article About Ken Salazar & M.M.M.
Posted by Jeffrey Cohen
08/23/2010, 05:40 PM

For an in-depth article about Ken Salazar and his long-standing relationship and complicity with the oil industry, I highly recommend the Rolling Stone Magazine article "The Spill, The Scandal and the President". (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/111965)
It will open your eyes.

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