Regulatory Proposals from Industry Don't Address Underlying Problems

By Gary D. Bass and Rick Melberth, OMB Watch
Published on
October 31, 2007

In light of stories of tainted lettuce, lead paint on toys, disease-causing flavorings in microwave popcorn, safety concerns with cough medicine, and other hazards, many industries and business associations are proposing new regulations they hope will restore consumer confidence. Many of these proposals call for new quality assurance programs and stronger regulation of foreign imports. Some of the approaches even call for strengthening federal agencies' regulatory powers or increasing their budgets, many of which have been cut to the bone during the Bush administration's business-friendly flurry of dismantling public protections. But most of these industry-led efforts are palliatives and do not solve the underlying problems.

Since 2001, the Bush administration, in partnership with industry, has launched an assault on regulations. The administration hired former industry officials to regulate the industries they left, letting the foxes guard the henhouse. Then the White House imposed new analytical hoops for agencies to jump through that stymie safeguards from the start. For health, safety and environmental regulations that get past the starting gate, the administration, working hand-in-glove with business interests, dilutes the standards, makes them voluntary, or creates rules that preempt states from providing stronger standards. Finally, with budget cuts to regulatory agencies, there is a wink and nod to meaningful enforcement.

What is lost by removing the cop on the beat? Miners die, factory workers get cancer from chemical exposures, and children get sick or need surgeries to repair damage from swallowing toy parts. The September 17 recall of one kind of Dole salad mix comes a year after E. coli-contaminated spinach caused 205 people to become sick and five to die. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 76 million Americans get sick each year from foodborne illnesses. Yet we have not fundamentally altered our regulatory protections, continuing to rely on a system that has yawning gaps in it.

These stories of death and illness generate national attention for a short time, and industry often responds with quick actions — more active recalls, steps toward voluntary sharing of information, and new quality assurance programs. Mattel, for example, recalled millions of toys this year, and it has one of the best quality assurance programs in the industry. Yet Mattel reported that the paint on some toys the company tested contained as much as 11 percent lead, compared to the 0.06 percent allowed by the federal standard.

In response to Mattel's problems, the Toy Industry Association recently asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to adopt a mandatory testing system to help ensure toys are safe.

The Grocery Manufacturers' Association proposed a regulatory "partnership" with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one of about a dozen different agencies with food safety responsibility, to adopt a foreign supplier quality assurance program based on FDA guidance (not regulations) and industry best practices.

Now that the public is concerned, it is not surprising that businesses propose industry-controlled approaches. And these proposals come at a time of increasing foreign competition, stepped-up state government regulation, and demands by some retailers that suppliers meet quality standards. Industry recognizes that addressing this patchwork of regulatory schemes is costly and complicated. So like the student taking a hated required course and looking for the easiest teacher, businesses are proposing changes while the Bush administration is still in office and the regulatory infrastructure is in shambles.

There are many business leaders and companies who go beyond minimal requirements to safeguard the public. But there are also those who look to cut corners or do the absolute minimum. That is why we need a strong regulatory infrastructure. The blame should be laid at the feet of both the Bush administration and the lack of congressional oversight and action since 2001.

More than six years after 9/11, there still is no comprehensive regulatory system to secure our chemical plants or to force the use of inherently safer technologies. After repeated food safety crises — from mad cow to E. coli — eating is still like playing Russian roulette. And it is inexcusable that parents have to fear whether letting their kid play with a toy will have lifelong health repercussions.

As with Hurricane Katrina, when government is cut to the bone, there is no infrastructure to respond. It's the same with the regulatory system: government can't respond, and there is no quick fix that restores public protections or public confidence.

Many of industry's recent proposals are little more than band-aids. Instead, we need to rebuild the government's capacity to prevent health and safety problems and to address problems that are not preventable. It would be nice to hear how our presidential candidates will restore the will and the responsibility of the government to protect the common good and bring our nation's regulatory system into the 21st century.

Dr. Gary D. Bass is the Executive Director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog organization. Dr. Rick Melberth is the organization's Director of Regulatory Policy.

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