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In Dallas Morning News Op-Ed, McGarity Examines Texas Legislature's Response to West, Texas, Disaster

Last week, CPR’s Tom McGarity had a column in the Christian Science Monitor, describing the ways that the political right’s war on regulation and enforcement helped contribute to the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion last month. Today, he’s got a separate piece in the Dallas Morning News (and this past Friday, it was in the Houston Chronicle) taking a look at the Texas legislature’s response to the disaster.

In the piece, McGarity takes a state legislator to task for declaring — even while the investigation into the West disaster is still ongoing — that "'the state of Texas is in good shape' when it comes to regulatory programs designed to protect its residents from future explosions. Therefore, he didn’t see the need for 'any major changes.'"

McGarity notes that Texas doesn’t even have an occupational safety and health entity that might have inspected the plant. Had it, he writes, its concern for worker safety

would have alerted it to the risks posed by the ammonium nitrate. And the steps taken to reduce those risks would have protected the entire community of West, not just the workers. When it comes to protecting public health and safety from threats posed by unsafe fertilizer plants in rural areas and equally dangerous industrial operations in major cities, Texas politicians have adopted a Wild West attitude that gives Texas businesses great freedom to innovate and grow the economy. But the Legislature and the governor have been less concerned about ensuring that these companies exercise that freedom in a responsible manner and are held accountable when they don’t.

It's well worth the read.

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Tom McGarity Op-Ed in the Christian Science Monitor: Feeble Oversight in West, Texas, Was No Accident

CPR's Tom McGarity has an op-ed in this morning's Christian Science Monitor describing the regulatory environment in which that West, Texas, fertilizer plant came to have a large stockpile of explosive material while operating with little or no oversight from state or federal authorities. An April 17 explosion at the plant claimed at least 15 lives and destroyed several hundred homes.

McGarity notes that Texas has no state program for occupational health and safety, so leaves such matters to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But with its tiny staff of inspectors (2,400 in all), OSHA's its resources are stretched so thin that it has inspected the plant just once -- in the mid-1980s. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has insufficient staff to inspect more than once a decade. Meanwhile the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is so small, it can only respond to complaints. He writes:

These regulatory agencies are supposed to be protecting the public from the risks posed by unsafe workplaces, releases of toxic pollutants, and catastrophic explosions. Yet their failure to focus on the risks posed by the West Fertilizer Company is not atypical. We saw similar failures with the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion (15 workers killed, 170 injured), the 2008 explosion at the Dixie Crystal sugar refinery in Georgia (14 workers killed), and the 2008 explosion at a Bayer CropScience chemical plant in West Virginia (two workers killed).

This lack of attention to the safety of our workplaces and neighborhoods is no accident. It is the product of a concerted attack by the US Chamber of Commerce, industry trade associations, and conservative think tanks on what they see as onerous regulatory programs – but ones that were enacted by Congress over the years to protect the public from irresponsible corporate misconduct.

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Steinzor Testifies Today on Proposed Giveaway to Energy Industry

This morning, CPR President Rena Steinzor will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the proposed Energy Consumers Relief Act of 2013 (ECRA), yet another in a series of bills from House Republicans aimed at blocking federal regulatory agencies from fully implementing the nation's health and safety laws — in this case such landmark legislation as the Clean Air Act, and any other law enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency that is in any sense "energy-related."

Here's the nut paragraph of the bill:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency may not promulgate as final an energy-related rule that is estimated to cost more than $1 billion if the Secretary of Energy determines under Section 3(3) [of ECRA] that, with respect to the rule, significant adverse effects to the economy will be caused.

In other words, the Secretary of Energy would have veto power over EPA.

Here's Steinzor's description of the proposal:

The ECRA is nothing more—and certainly nothing less—than yet another attempt by certain Members of Congress to shield some of the wealthiest and most heavily subsidized corporations in history from the relatively modest financial costs associated with carrying out their businesses in a manner that does not place people and the environment at unreasonable risk of harm.

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Steinzor Testifies this Morning on Benefits of Regulation, Role of SBA's Office of Advocacy

This morning, CPR President Rena Steinzor testifies before the House Committee on Small Business's Subcommittee on Investigations, Oversight and Regulations. From the witness list, it would appear that this'll be another in a series of hearings structured by House Republicans to inveigh against the regulations that protect Americans from a variety of hazards in the air we breathe, water we drink, places we work, products we buy, food we eat, and more.

If history is any guide, most of the testimony and discussion will focus not on how best to protect Americans from such problems, but on the costs to small business of doing so. Steinzor is the lone witness permitted to the minority party -- the Democrats, that is -- and as such, could well be the only person who mentions the benefits of regulation. Study after study has demonstrated that the economic benefits of regulation vastly exceed the economic costs. Indeed, before a significant regulation can be finalized, the regulatory agencies must conduct an extensive cost-benefit analysis to be certain that the benefits of the rule exceed the costs. That process is not without flaws: Typically it is slanted to overstate the costs and understate the benefits, and it focuses on economic benefits, ignoring those that cannot be readily expressed in dollar terms. But it's the process this and previous administrations have relied upon. For years, opponents of regulation took the line that we needed to be sure benefits, so measured, outweigh costs. They got what they wanted, but can't take "yes" for an answer, so now they simply rail against costs, and ignore the benefits.

Steinzor will remind them of what those safeguards bring us in terms of lives saved, workdays not lost, health care dollars not spent, ecosystems preserved, and more.

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Executive Review of Regulation in Obama's Second Term

CPR Member Scholar David Driesen of Syracuse University has an op-ed in the January 28 Syracuse Post-Standard making the case that the President should reinvigorate his regulatory agenda, in part by diminishing the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs' power to stifle regulations. He puts the argument in the context of the pressing need for action on climate change, writing:

Obama should put an end to obstructionist OIRA review in light of the urgency of climate disruption and the failures this review has led to. Specifically, he should issue an executive order requiring prompt regulation of major sources of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, including a schedule for prompt rulemaking. This order should direct OIRA to work to speed and strengthen environmental, health and safety standards. He should also abolish OIRA's authority to review minor standards, since such reviews waste scarce government resources excessively analyzing cheap measures to protect people from important threats.

Finally, he should order OIRA to stop demanding cost-benefit analysis of proposed environmental, health and safety protections. We cannot reliably compare the value of human life or a preserved ecosystem to the costs of regulation. Key uncertainties often make quantification of the number of deaths and illnesses or the magnitude of ecological destruction addressed through environmental standards impossible....

We barely made it through the first round of the 'fiscal cliff battle,' but we will still face an ongoing climate crisis unless Obama abandons business-as-usual in favor of doing everything we feasibly can do to reduce the coming damage. He can do a lot with the stroke of a pen, perhaps even enough to persuade some House Republicans to come to the table to help shape future environmental policy.

Read the full article, here.

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Using Executive Orders to Move the Agenda

CPR's Rena Steinzor and Amy Sinden have an op-ed in this morning's Baltimore Sun urging President Obama to make aggressive use of Executive Orders leading to regulation action to protect health, safety and the environment.  They write:

Barack Obama's ambitions are clear. He came to office in 2009 on the strength of a far-reaching, progressive agenda that included resurrecting the economy, rebuilding the American middle class, ending one war, winning another, stopping the Bush-era tax giveaways to the rich, fixing the health care system, addressing global warming, ending "Don't ask, don't tell," and more.

Four years on, despite the bitter partisan divide that defines politics in our age, he's made progress on most fronts, to his great credit. But if he is to make further advances on his agenda, odds are he'll need to do it without much help from Congress. Let's face it: If the fiscal cliff battle tells us anything, it's that the spanking congressional Republicans took from voters last month did little to diminish their appetite for confrontation and gridlock. As a result, great legislative achievements don't seem to be in the cards for either party any time soon.

So what might the president accomplish on his own? Plenty. If, that is, he's willing to use every bit of executive power he can marshal, by directing the regulatory agencies of his administration to move with dispatch to regulate and enforce in a number of vital areas.

The piece draws on their recent CPR Issue Alert, Protecting People & the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen, written with fellow Member Scholar Robert Glicksman, CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, and Policy Analysts James Goodwin and Michael Patoka.  The op-ed and the Issue Alert map out a way for the President to secure a legacy on environmental, health and safety issues, and are well worth a read.

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Columbia Journalism Review Calls Out Bloomberg Story on Regulation

Last week, The Washington Post ran a story about regulation, headlined, "Regulators surge in numbers while overseers shrink." The story came from Bloomberg and was written by reporter Andrew Zajac. The headline captures the thrust of the piece. Zajac writes:

As the U.S. government’s regulatory bureaucracy has ballooned, one agency has been left behind: the office that oversees the regulators. The number of people working in federal agencies with regulatory authority has doubled to about 292,000 under both Republican and Democratic administrations during the past 30 years.

Yesterday, the Columbia Journalism Review dismantled the story's premise in the kind of takedown that ought to prompt the Post not just to run a correction, but to reconsider the way it reviews future Bloomberg stories on the subject before it prints them.

The takedown comes from Ryan Chittum, writing for CJR's "The Audit on the Business Press." Its headline also tells the tale: "Inflating the regulatory state: TSA and border security account for almost half of the increase in the regulatory staff since 1980."

Chittum writes:

The regulatory bureaucracy has ballooned? That doesn’t sound right. The federal workforce, after all, is down over the last 40-plus years, and places like OSHA are shadows of their former selves.

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A Warning about Water Quality Trading in the Chesapeake

This Memorial Day weekend, boaters, swimmers, fishers and others will flock to the Chesapeake Bay to mark the traditional, if not quite calendrically accurate, beginning of summer. They'll bring their wallets with them, of course, thus supporting businesses and and jobs up and down the Bay. After a day in, on or near the water, many of them will tuck into a meal of crabcakes, made from blue crabs harvested in the Bay.

Recreation and commerce are two of the most important uses of the Bay, and certainly the best known. But another use, less advertised and far less understood, is as a dumping ground for pollution. Some of that pollution comes from rainwater runoff from roads and other hard surfaces, carrying motor oil and other substances into the Bay. Some comes from overfertilized lawns. And a significant chunk, including 44 percent of the Bay's load of nitrogen and phosphorous, the most worrisome pollutants, comes from agriculture. That includes concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the region, as well as largely unregulated crop farms whose fertilizer runs off into Bay tributaries.

Despite the huge importance to the region of a healthy Bay, the simple truth is that human activity is endangering it. Already, the Bay experiences "dead zones," as a result. The stop-start, but mostly stopped, effort to clean up the Bay over the last quarter century has accomplished little, and EPA leadership -- at least until 2009 -- was conspicuuously absent.

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Bloomberg News Serves up an Echo-Chamber-Ready Take on Regulation

Last week, Bloomberg News ran a curious story conflating a range of issues under the banner of regulatory rollbacks. The piece keys off of the ongoing GOP push to deregulate America. That effort has been going on for decades, of course, but in the wake of the recession (made possible, not coincidentally, by deregulation in the economic sector), GOP leaders and their business allies and funders have rebranded it, and now argue that that "burdensome" economic, health, safety and environmental regulations are in fact the cause of economic distress.

Most of the GOP rhetoric has been aimed at federal regulation. But the Bloomberg piece breaks some new ground, sweeping together a hodgepodge of state regulations and laws, overlaying it with an uncritical reference to some shoddy right-wing research, and presenting the resulting brew as the state and local expression of the GOP's anti-regulatory campaign.

In the first three paragraphs of the story, the reader is given purported evidence that regulations are bad for the economy, and treated to a quote from a blogger for the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) alerting us to a "national focus on reducing regulation…some of [which] is about jobs and revenue and some of [which] is about less government."

The supposed evidence of regulatory burden is an unattributed study (the article eventually explains it was "issued" by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but never names the source) concluding that "regulation cut gross state output in California by $493 billion a year." A little Googling reveals that the study was conducted by two researchers at California State University, Sacramento, apparently under contract from the Governor's Office of Small Business Advocate. Much as a similar report from the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy has been discredited by a number of sources for its ridiculous methodology, the California version uses similar methods and got similar reviews. California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office dismembers its methodology and conclusions, making clear that it piles bad estimates on top of bad methodology, charitably describing its flaws with words like "deficient," "problems," "special difficulties, "inappropriate," and "overstated." Bloomberg, on the other hand, presents it as if its calculation were the revealed truth.

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Regulatory Opponents Take Note: The Media May Be Catching On!

One of the many ways that the slow and agonizing contraction of the newspaper industry is felt is in the depth of coverage that papers provide their readers. It’s a matter of simple math, really. As newsrooms shrink, reporters are stretched ever thinner. So a newspaper that 15 years ago had separate reporters covering elementary and secondary education is now likely to have just one covering both. Similarly, newspapers have fewer reporters dedicated to the environmental beat, let alone beats covering regulatory issues — topics at the heart of the Center for Progressive Reform’s work. The result is that many reporters don’t have time to take on stories they might once have covered, and if they do, they sometimes have a steeper learning curve and too little time to really dig in. That’s a recipe for simplistic coverage, which is just a nice way of saying bad coverage.

But I’d like to highlight two notable exceptions. On Tuesday, two of the nation’s leading newspapers offered stories about regulation that went far beyond the norm.

Think for a moment about the storyline on regulation for the past couple years. Republicans in Congress, intent on devising some rationale for the nation’s economic woes that does not point back to the failings of their own deregulatory policies, have resaddled their longstanding anti-regulatory campaign with a new and timely argument: that a supposed flood of regulations from the Obama Administration is choking off the recovery.

It’s a hard case to make if you stick to the facts. The truth is that regulations produce vastly more economic benefit than they cost – that is the purpose of the cost-benefit analysis wringer through which major regulations are fed before they are finalized. With very rare exception, if a regulation’s dollar benefits don’t exceed its dollar costs, it gets rewritten or killed. (And keep in mind that that the big failing of the cost-benefit process is that it overestimates costs and underestimates benefits.)

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