The wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico continues to spew
crude oil while energy companies reap record profits ($6.1 billion for
BP in the first quarter of 2010). The misbehavior on Wall Street draws
neutered rebukes from Congress while the companies that created the
derivatives that undermined our economy continue to thwart further
regulation. Government malfeasance at the state and national levels
seems to be the order of the day and only in hindsight do we learn of
One reason you can get away with it these days has to do with the
decline of the daily newspaper. Newspapers all over the nation are
shrinking, folding or trading news for fluff. If you don’t miss turning
the pages of a substantial daily paper with your morning coffee, you
should be aware that what we are in danger of losing is the role that
serious papers have long played in our democracy: keeping an eye on
those in power.
Jon Stewart, in a recent conversation with Newsweek editor Jon
Meacham, asked the question well: If all we have are networks and web
sites that analyze and opine and aggregate news, who will do the actual
news gathering? Who will keep an eye on the powerful? Meachem didn’t
have an answer. The honest answer is that without watchdogs, impunity
rules the land.
And lo and behold, the most telegenic political movement of our
times, the Tea Party, proclaims among their most important beliefs the
need for less regulation. Government, charged for years with looking the
other way, should now leave us completely alone.
In the 14 years since Bill Clinton lied and said “the era of big
government is over,” the federal budget has more than doubled. Most of
that growth occurred while Republicans were in residence at 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue, but no matter. Clinton’s dance around the truth
came eight years after Ronald Reagan left office still proclaiming that
“government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.” Reagan
allowed government spending to increase by 69 percent in his eight
years, very close to the 68 percent growth of the problem child during
George W. Bush’s two terms.
So there is no partisan scent to the growth of government. The debate
over whether government is too big or too small is sterile beyond
measure. The question is whether government is doing what we need it to
do. Size doesn’t matter—confidence does.
To the Tea Party enthusiast, I would ask, exactly which federal
programs would you like to eliminate? Would you like to reduce the
number of people responsible for making sure oil companies are doing
what they should when they dig for petroleum a mile under the ocean?
Would you care to pull back some of those mine inspectors from West
Or perhaps eliminate the second level of redundancy in reviewing the
No Fly List that is supposed to keep terrorists off our airplanes? It
was a government bureaucrat reviewing the Emirates Airlines passenger
list who spotted Faisal Shahzad’s name on the flight manifest after the
air carrier had failed to check the list and had allowed him on board
the flight to Dubai. Government vigilance kept the would-be Times Square
bomber from making his getaway at the last moment. (Apparently the No
Fly List is not a “No Taxi” List. No word on whether the unbelievably
incompetent Mr. Shahzad had received his peanuts and soft drink before
being escorted from the plane.)
Ironically, in the heated debate over high-volume hydraulic
fracturing (hydrofracking) in New York state, there is one thing that
both opponents and supporters of can agree on—that the number of
inspectors in the state Department of Environmental Conservation needed
to police the natural gas operations must be expanded. Yes, more
But bigger is not better unless someone is watching over those
regulators to make sure they are doing their jobs. Otherwise we might
have a repeat of what happened with the Minerals Management Service
(MMS), the agency within the federal Department of the Interior dealing
with offshore gas and oil exploration. The agency’s failings were little
noticed until now, but they make us wonder why no one picked up on the
story in time.
In September 2008, after someone inside Interior got sick to her
stomach and blew the whistle, an inspector general investigated the MMS
and found “a culture of ethical failure.” The report is replete with
titillating examples of government employees using cocaine on the job,
fixing bids and copulating with the oil industry executives they are
presumably regulating (that’s stretching the definition of the verb if
you ask me). If you want to cry, you can read the report online at
www.propublica.org/scandal/oil-for-sex/ while you watch the slick spread
on the nightly news. If you don’t have the time or the inclination,
trust me, the web address tells you more than you need to know.
While BP drilled, these Interior Department employees were having a
wild time on our dime. As the ooze spreads across the Gulf and no one
can tell us when it will stop, the MMS issued a joint advisory along
with the Coast Guard, belatedly reminding oil drillers that they should,
um, do what they are supposed to do.
Can someone keep a better eye on these folks? If not, kids, get ready
to hop on the gravy train.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse