Bob Franken

Last Week’s Hearst Piece

^THE APATHETIC REGULATORS@< ^(For use by New York Times News Service clients)@< ^By BOB FRANKEN@= ^C.2010 Hearst Newspapers@= WASHINGTON _ In our supposedly open system of government, the fact is that we often don't get to see where the meaningful action takes place. Oh sure, we watch and shake our heads at the contortions of our politicians getting twisted into knots in Congress and the White House. At least we see some of it. But even after legislation is passed and signed, it then heads to the federal agencies whose job it is to decide how these new laws will be put into practice. A recent investigative story written by Stewart Powell, Richard Dunham and Spencer Gaffney of the Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau examines how the bureaucrats answer far too much to lobbyists. Before they're through whittling away, the agencies have sometimes shaved the stated purpose of the law to nothing or even turned it inside out. They sabotage any chance of effectively enforcing what's left on the bones. Full disclosure: This column is written for the Hearst News Service, independent of the news report, which was also written for Hearst. The article stands on its own as a piece of original journalism that does a great public service. It is based on in-depth reporting on the hows and whys of the cozy relationship between regulators and regulates and it gets to the shadow reality of the federal government. The Hearst article goes into great detail about the revolving doors and big money that help the oil and gas industry keep federal officials at bay. Of the 694 lobbyists registered for the energy lobby, 434 of them have previously been federal employees. And it's a two-way street. The Hearst piece points out that ``agency officials often are recruited from the very industries they are mandated to regulate.'' Combine that with the heavy loads of cash used to, ah, persuade members of Congress to underfund, understaff and undermine effective enforcement, it's not hard to see how various industries can simply flout the intent of the law.

This is not limited to the energy behemoths. Wherever we turn in the federal maze, we see the corrosive effects of lobbying that thwarts everything from straightforward pharmaceutical controls to accurate, informative nutrition information.

Part of the problem is the inherent “contradictory missions” of regulators where, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration for years saw itself as an advocate for the airlines. Another example: the Amtrak cabal of bankers and Wall Streeters that rides back and forth between cushy jobs at New York banks and powerful ones in Washington sees to it that their industries are well taken care of. All too often, everyone else is left in the lurch.

Typically, we only notice when something goes horribly wrong. It took the BP debacle in the Gulf of Mexico to inspire a focus on the ridiculously impotent Minerals Management Service. MMS was such an embarrassment that the Obama administration changed the name. Not only that, it divvied it up into three separate offices to minimize the conflict of interest inherent in an agency that was supposed to maximize federal royalty payments from the oil and gas industry while protecting the environment and the work force from that same industry.

Massey Coal has raised the same alarms about the inadequacies of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but it took 29 deaths underground to do it.

Part of the problem is the news media. All too often we take the easy way out and pretend that we adequately cover Washington by presenting the antics of Congress and the personality of the president. It’s too expensive to look into all the nooks and crannies, where the real power is hidden.

That’s why the regulatory agency project was so important. It shed light on the regulatory agency battleground where money and conflict of interest all-too-often place an impossible barrier against safety protections and enforcement against fraud. This examination was long overdue.

^–@< (E-mail: bob(at); on the Web:

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